Interview – Saul Davies (James)

James have become something of a household name in the UK over the past few decades and are all set to release their new album, All The Colours In You, on 4th June. I decided to have a chat with Saul Davies via the magic of the internet, discussing the new album, the current pandemic and Brexit, amongst other things. Find out how I got on below!

By Jane Howkins

You’ve got a new album coming out on June 4th, titled All The Colours Of You. I must admit I’ve not had the opportunity to have a listen yet but we will be doing a review of it soon. What can you tell us about the album?

Well, we wrote it prior to the pandemic so we were able to jam together and get some tunes together, which was great. By coincidence, our singer Tim (who was at the time living in California) bumped into Jacknife Lee who turned out to be his neighbour. Jacknife said he would produce the record and we ended up being able to produce a record quite seamlessly, you know, even though the world’s gone a bit mad – so we were lucky in that sense. It’s quite an adventurous record sonically and in some of the themes that are touched on vocally and lyrically, so I think you’ll recognise that when you hear it.

I would say it fits very well into our group of records that we’ve made since 2013, I guess, with La Petite Mort, Girl At The End Of The World and the last one that we did – I think it fits in that group of records very well as opposed to the records that we made in the nineties. It’s a very contemporary sounding record, whatever that means. I think it’s a very good sounding record and people seem to be responding to it very positively, so I’ll take their lead on that.

So how was the writing and recording process this time round? Was it a lot harder with the pandemic, or did you find other ways to work together?

No, we didn’t need to because we’d already done the writing in three sessions. Myself, Tim, Jim and Mark got together and made some noise and we were able to do that in three sessions before anyone had even heard of covid 19. So really, when Jacknife called upon us to produce the record, he was able to call upon us remotely to be able to generate some of the parts that we needed here and there. He also did some parts himself, so although there was one major difference (that we weren’t able to get together and record as such), we didn’t really need to – I think it’s quite interesting really. It’s the way forwards – I don’t have to see the fuckers!

Have you managed to practice together using online methods at all? I know you’ve got some gigs coming up soon, have you had much chance to practice for them?

No, we just got together – we were able to as of a couple of weeks ago. We did ten days together just now – I’m just back from rehearsing with the band. We’ve all had to do our tests, it’s a bit weird but that was very useful as it’s the first time that we had any opportunity to play these songs together as they lived in demo form previously and not everybody had been involved, so it was quite an interesting experience. In truth my band was going to take a year off from September 2019 through to probably late summer 2020 so we’ve not lost a lot really. We were going to play some shows in summer 2020 which obviously didn’t take place, but we’ve still got a new record and we’re about to embark on some shows (but who knows if and when those shows will actually take place).

You’ve released a few singles recently, with one of them being Beautiful Beaches. How do you decide which songs will become singles? Do you write them to be singles or do you choose later?

No, we never write songs to be singles – if we did that we’d be fucked because it would be a guarantee if left in our hands to write a hit single that it wouldn’t be a hit single. We just do what falls out of the sky into our laps, and then it’s for other people to say – “Well if you want to get on the radio then you’d be more likely to get on the radio with this”. There are people who do that job and that’s their job to do – we have an input as we want the work to reflect us, but as we’ve made the work it reflects us anyway. We’re incredibly proud of what we’ve put out there, but radio is so torturously difficult – for a band that’s been going for 40+ years, getting on the radio is notoriously hard. You must put your best foot forward, or you must take the advice of the people around you, or it would be a bit silly really. Playlists are tight and everyone has their own reasons for wanting to play whatever. When the album, Seven, came out in 1992, Radio 1 had a James day. What’s the last thing you’re going to hear on radio one nowadays? And quite rightly so, it would be James! But we get a lot of support from 6 Music and Absolute, and Radio 2 have been great to us which is amazing – you take what you can get, really.

Fair enough! Have you got any more singles planned for release in the near future, or is that it for now?

Truthfully, I don’t know!

Have you not decided yet then?

I think there’s going to be a track called If I Had Known What I Was Getting Myself Into I Wouldn’t Have Dared and we’re going to make a little video for that where we’re all pretending to be animals in a big stately home. So long as the video is only embarrassing and not actually dreadful, then we’ll probably put that song out!

I’ll have to keep an eye out for that! You’ve got a few tour dates coming up – you’ve got the arena tour in the winter and some festival dates this summer. Would you ever consider doing any socially distanced gigs, or is that something you wouldn’t be into?

Yeah, I think we would – it depends on how badly we want to play. I don’t see why not. I think it would be counter productive not to really – we have to recognise that the world has changed and is changing, and it might well change back again. I think it would be wrong of us not to support social distancing so I would be inclined to do it as we’d be adding our little voice to the conversation around respect for each other. One of the things that I find so poor in the United Kingdom, apart from the government, is the piss-poor attitude of those who decide to fuck about who no masks and all that lot. It’s just so disrespectful – so I would be very inclined to be seen to be supporting something which engenders and supports respect. There have been pronouncements by various musicians around not wanting to play socially distanced gigs or to the vaccinated and it’s all just a fucking nonsense.

I know you released a song, Recover, fairly recently which was dedicated to the families of those who have passed away from covid, so I thought you’d be leaning that way. I assume you’re not into any of these conspiracies surrounding the disease?

No, simply because there is no conspiracy surrounding covid. It’s a pointless waste of time, it doesn’t make sense.

You’re doing several festival dates this summer – we’re hoping to see you at Y Not (if it goes ahead)! Are there any festivals that you particularly enjoy playing, anywhere you’d like to play that you’ve never played before?

No, I think at this point most bands would be of the view that it would be great to just go and play again. So in a sense you would just play anywhere, do you know what I mean? A lot of the things taking place in the summer are now taking place in September, so our summer has kind of been shunted. That’s quite cool, I think it’s quite sensible as well. At the moment, there is a huge amount of expectation and hope from people that there would be a lot of activity this summer and that has obviously not panned out in the way they thought it would, so it remains to be seen whether things that are currently scheduled for this summer will even go ahead. I don’t think there’s any guarantee and it’s not a surprise that anybody would say that. But I think it’s very important, I think that music and celebration of music can be a way to pull us out of all this shit. I’m a football fan and it’s been interesting watching matches over the past few days where there are just a few thousand people in the stadium, and what a difference it makes to the spectacle and the atmosphere of a game. People thought there would be a full calendar of events this summer and that’s just not happening.

Hopefully the festivals do go ahead!

Let’s hope! That brings other things into question – the big sticking point is the insurance – the festivals can’t go ahead without having some kind of insurance in place so if it’s cancelled they’re covered, and quite correctly. Because then they’ll go under and we’ll lose all our festivals, which could be very dodgy. We’re in a really dodgy, critical moment, I think.

It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out. Now you’ve got the arena gigs later on in the year, do you ever miss the days of playing smaller clubs, or do you prefer the arenas nowadays?

I love playing in smaller venues, it’s difficult for us to do so because there are a lot of us and it’s a big production and it doesn’t quite fit, but occasionally we do warm up shows and no doubt we’ll do a warm up show before we kick off. The difficulty with warm up shows is we end up in small venues as you just want to do a small, intimate thing – there are 9 of us now and it’s difficult getting on smaller stages. It’s very, very difficult. I love playing in smaller places but there’s something great about walking out onto a big stage at an arena or a festival. It feels unbelievable, it’s a huge privilege to be able to do something like that. It’s pretty remarkable really.

The band emerged on the Manchester scene in the 80s. You had a bit of a hiatus back in the 2000s but you’re one of the few bands from that scene that have managed to keep going. What would you say is the secret to your success and how have you managed to keep it going for so long?

Just a hunger to make more music together I would say, it’s very simple. If you think that you’re making good music and enjoy making that music together then you want to get out there and play together, it’s a very simple process really. It all starts with the validation that you bring to yourself and other people and the validation the fans bring to you by attempting to make new and interesting music. If we just sat on our arses and did greatest hits sets (we’ve had seventeen top 40 hits over our career so we have the hits) then we’d have been fucked years ago.

Is it hard to stay creative over the years? Do you start to run out of ideas, or does it get easier because you know each other so well?

No, I would say that we’re in the same place that we ever were – we find it very easy to write together and it’s an enjoyable and fulfilling part of the process – it’s magical when you get in a room and start making a noise together and you don’t know what you’re going to do and something called music appears. It’s a privilege and it’s the start point of a whole cycle of events that then takes place – demoing, recording, a record, promotion, shows – it’s a three year thing but it all comes from one thing, it comes from two week long or three week long blocks of us just getting in the space, locking ourselves away and making noise.

The music industry has changed quite a lot over the years, certainly a lot since James started, for example with the rise of downloadable mp3s. Has it hindered you much or do you think it’s helped to make your music more accessible?

I don’t know. I think it might have helped in some ways and it’s been a hindrance in others. I think there’s so much noise out there nowadays that to be heard can be difficult but if people want to hear us it’s easier to access us. I don’t know really. It’s the same question as the promise of digital culture. There’s a huge promise made by digital connectivity but then you look at the level of the conversation and it’s very poor. In our country it’s led to Brexit and poor management of the covid 19 situation, so you have to ask yourself, would we have been better in a pre-digital era in terms of the conversations we would be having about how to resolve these issues? So, I think in that sense our opportunity for conversation is far higher but the quality of conversation is far lower. It depends what you want – quality or quantity. In my view we should have less people talking about things they don’t know about and more people talking about things they do know about to help us in moments that are difficult and important, like Brexit, for example.

I assume you weren’t a Brexit supporter then?

No, and I fail to understand why anybody would be until you understand that the messaging was brilliant – it’s pure manipulation. It’s not even lying, it’s far, far deeper than just lying – it’s structural abuse of the whole country. 60 million people got fucked. There isn’t one argument for it – it’s very dangerous. I’ve been out of Britain recently and I came back recently and I realised that we’re in complete collapse.  We’re in freefall. That’s why partially I think they don’t want anybody to come here so they don’t see how shit it is! We are in the process of doing ourselves a great disservice and we are becoming marginalised. People want us to be marginalised so they can get our money out of it. You guys can pick up the pieces you fuckers (laughs).

Coming back to music – as previously mentioned, you’re from Manchester, which has a well-known music scene. What is the music scene like at the moment there and are there any current acts that you could recommend?

Yeah, I think there are some great things happening in Manchester. I did a little work with a band recently called Rosellas – they’re really good and I think they’re doing some really great work. They’re kind of part of that tradition of gobshite Manc bands who think they’re the messiah, and every so often one of them actually is. They’re cool, there’s a whole load of bands coming out of Manchester at the moment. Names escape me but it’s a really good scene. There hasn’t been much over the last 18 months for obvious reasons, but people are making music still. Rosellas did a great track recently called Common Ground which is really good, I think it’s a Manc classic waiting to happen. You should check it out!

I will do! Do you think your influences have changed much over the years? Do you listen to a lot of newer bands or do you tend to listen to stuff that you were listening to when growing up still?

Both, really. I really enjoy hearing new things. Actually, I’m in the middle of recording vocals at the moment with a band that have come to join me here from Exeter called Sound Of The Sirens – they’ve been going for a few years but they’re new to me. They’re fantastic these two girls – they’ve just been for a run and are going to have a shower, and then when I’ve done these interviews then we’re going to continue recording vocals at my little studio space in my garden.

Nice!

But I’ve remained a fan of all the records I was brought up with, you know – Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, The Injury, Talking Heads, The Beatles… But I absolutely am always overjoyed to hear newer things. And the newer things you hear have a habit of becoming old very quickly as time passes very quickly.

Especially in the music industry!

Exactly. A few years ago, I discovered a new band called The War On Drugs and now they’ve released five albums, so they’re not a new band anymore, are they? The search for new music is difficult because you have to cut through all the noise like we were talking about earlier, so I think recommendation by other people is still the best way. You should check out a band from Glasgow called Memes – they’re really cool. And another band called Walt Disco as well. They’re very funny, very cool and a very interesting band.

Excellent! We best be wrapping up now, I know you’ve got another interview after this. Is there anything else you’d like to add, anything else you’d like to say?

There’s only one human race – many faces and everybody belongs here.