Tim Booth on turning trauma into joy, seeing death differently and how James ended up rehearsing in grand Yorkshire Dales country home

The new album from James tackles some heavy topics – but Yorkshire-born singer Tim Booth explains confronting trauma is central to his and the band’s philosophy. Chris Burn reports.

Tim Booth says he is looking forward to playing live with James again after a two-year break due to Covid. PIcture: Laura Toomey
Tim Booth says he is looking forward to playing live with James again after a two-year break due to Covid. PIcture: Laura Toomey

When he was growing up in 1970s Yorkshire, Tim Booth learnt first-hand about the painful consequences of repressing traumatic experiences.

“My grandfather had won a medal for some heroism in the trenches where he had been in No Man’s Land with a dying commander for two to three days,” James singer Booth explains to The Yorkshire Post over Zoom in an interview ahead of next week’s release of the band’s 16th studio album All The Colours of You.

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“He had a breakdown in the 1970s and the breakdown was the post-traumatic stress disorder he had sat on all his life. My grandfather was always angry and I didn’t like him very much as a child because he was just a bit scary. Then he had a breakdown and we realised he was sitting on PTSD.”

Tim Booth of James performing on the Main Stage at the T in the Park festival in 2014. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire

All the Colours of You opens with the lyrics “We’re all going to die, that’s the truth” on first track Zero and goes on to address losing a close family member to Covid, climate change and the rise of white supremacy in America yet pulls off the surprising trick of leaving listeners feeling upbeat with the anthemic songs accurately described in a press release for the album as “among the most arena-ready in James’s 38-year history”.

Bradford-born Booth explains: “Originally Zero was going to have a very uplifting lyric about ‘We’re all going to shine’ but I guess with Covid and a real sense of impending mortality for many of us, I just changed the line to ‘We’re all going to die’ and discovered the song was still uplifting, which was really a fantastic contradiction. We love contradictions in James, we often have songs which are very uplifting but with a lyric that is pretty introspective and soul-searching.”

Booth says he first realised the restorative power of addressing personal pain through upbeat music with the band’s acclaimed 1990 album Gold Mother. “In the 80s I mainly wrote in metaphor and then with Gold Mother, I was splitting up with the mother of my son and was in quite a dark place,” he says. “For the first time, a lot of the lyrics came from that and were really about my life or people around me.”

He says on the way to the first gig of the tour the stepdaughters of band member Larry Gott asked to hear the new record.

Tim Booth of James performing on the Main Stage at the T in the Park festival in 2014. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

“They put it on and sang the songs I had written from such pain and sang them with absolute joy,” he says. “They sang ‘After 30 years I have become my fears/I have become the man I always hated’ [from the song Come Home] as a joyful thing and I remember going, ‘This is what can happen, music can turn the poison into something really positive’. That was the first gig of the tour and then I watched 100 men punching the air and shouting those same lyrics with absolute self-awareness. It was revelatory to me that the more you go into that thing that has a lot of fear or sadness or grief the more medicinal it can be, the more poignant it is, the more real it is.”

The now 61-year-old Booth expands: “PTSD stays in the body. I’m a trained therapist and I very much believe in the theory of ‘body armour’ – traumas are often locked into your body and you can release them through breathing and dance and exercise and all kinds of ways and therapeutic methods.

“When you get older your body can no longer lock in the trauma and I think that accounts for a lot of people falling apart in pretty negative way with illnesses later on. I’m a person who walks towards wounds and my own trauma because I believe if you don’t, it will come and get you when you are older. There’s no escape so you may as well walk towards it and go see what is in there. It is what keeps my lyrics potent because if stuff comes up I want to discover what is it is me that is preventing from me saying sorry or whatever I’m doing. Once you unlock it, it is power. Jung said something like ‘We don’t achieve enlightenment by turning towards the light but by turning towards the shadows’. That philosophy that drives me generally and luckily I’m with a band that goes along with that mostly. I haven’t always led it. We like taking risks and we like walking into the heart of darkness.

“Whether it is changing the set or playing songs we don’t know or improvising in front of thousands of people, that’s scary. But that is what keep us vital and alive whereas too many bands it just becomes an over-rehearsed theatre set. It is not for us, we want something that is living and breathing and our audiences tend to have got that now. They understand why we don’t play Sit Down for years at a time or might rest songs rather than playing them like a karaoke band and if we don’t it is the path to the end.”

Recover, the third song on the new album, deals with the death of Booth’s father-in-law Saville Shela with Covid in April 2020 in a way that is at once an unsparing account of his illness and an uplifting celebration of his life and legacy.  
Booth, who almost died himself from a liver condition when he was 21 and who addressed his mother’s death in 2014 through the song Moving On, says: “I have quite a positive attitude to death. I died when I was 21 and was revived and it was a beautiful experience. My mother died in my arms and it was a beautiful experience. I know many people don’t have that experience but that is mine. I don’t really have the same relationship with death that most people or at least the culture pretends to have.

“It has been amazing putting songs like Moving On out and people writing to me saying, ‘Yes, that is my experience too’. I’m not referring to anyone who has lost a child or someone way before their time because I don’t know how I would survive that.

“But I wrote Recover very quickly after he died. It was a very powerful experience. We were graced enough to have last words on FaceTime and to be able to FaceTime his wife and hold her up to his screen and let them have last words – many people didn’t get that. That was very important for us, he told us he wasn’t afraid to die, he told us how much he loved us and he asked me to sing to him. We had a strange measure of feeling like we are in the middle of a war zone and we are lucky to get this.

““He was a very big personality, we used to say ‘The circus is coming to town’ because he was such fun and there is a lyric in there, ‘The circus has moved on’. In the end grief is an expression of how much you love that person. I embrace grief and it is a medal of love. They are not really gone, they really aren’t. Death isn’t quite the thing that the culture says it is.

“He asked me to sing Sit Down while he was on the ventilator. I only discovered two days ago talking to his wife that he had it in his will I was to sing that at his funeral. I wanted to sing it at my own father’s funeral in 1995 but my mum wouldn’t let as she thought it was blasphemous. It was kind of full circle.”

Booth describes his relationship with his own father Meredith, a businessman and World War II veteran, as “distant”.

“He was 56 when I was born and in those days that is the equivalent of 76 now. He was just distant and my parents sent me to boarding school which is how to alienate your child in one easy lesson. But he was a lovely man and really unusually gentle for that generation. He had been in the war and been a Major. They called him Major Death because his name was Meredith. He had been behind the Japanese lines. We discovered a few things about him recently about his courage - he never told us a word about the war but actually he was doing some pretty intense things in Burma. Yet he was this very religious, very gentle, very sweet man. I never really had a rough time with him. It was more that I didn’t really know him and he wasn’t there which therapists would tell you is a rough time. But I never didn’t like him or anything like that.”

For the past 11 years Booth and his own family have lived in the US but they have recently sold their home in California, partly as a result of the rapidly-encroaching effects of climate change which saw increasingly-frequent forest fires happening close to their property – a subject tackled on the album in the song Beautiful Beaches.

“We sold our house because we live in an amazing canyon in the trees and we were getting fires in the area once every two weeks within five miles and it just would take a day with a strong wind to change the outcome,” Booth explains.

“We also sold our house because looking at the election we thought if Trump gets in, any pretence at democracy in America will go. We sold up, we are floating, we don’t know where we are going to live. I think climate change is going to be massive issue in America, the weather is so extreme in America we are going to see some absolute anomaly things happening in the next two or three years. We are unsure if we are going to go back.”

But a chance meeting while spending time in Central America recently brought James back together in the unlikely rehearsal space of Broughton Hall in the Yorkshire Dales.

Booth says he and his wife made friends out there with Broughton Hall’s owner Roger Tempest and his partner Paris Ackrill.

“They asked where would we be going when we were in the UK and I said we are going to rehearse in some crappy studio in London,” Booth explains. “Roger said come to my house and it happened to be a rather large manor house outside of Skipton. We were blown away by their generosity.

“It was an amazing return for us as James and it was so joyful. We were playing in these incredible rooms on a carpet that had been donated to the family by Marie Antoinette and with pictures of relatives on every wall space looking down on us as if to say ‘What have you let these riff-raff in here for?’ We had a blast.”

The band, who are now a nine-piece, have also written their last two albums at the Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield and Booth says the recent time at Broughton Hall was a reminder that returning to Yorkshire is always a privilege.

“It was really good to be back. It was very familiar, the light was familiar, the land was familiar and beautiful. I have got a few homes, Manchester was a home for a while, Yorkshire and California. Brighton was pretty good for a while as well! I’m a traveller, I move. It was amazing being back in Yorkshire, we might do some more writing back in Yorkshire.”

Despite confronting difficult themes, Booth hopes the new album will be received as the positive statement it is intended to be.

“I hope it will be part of the healing from the pandemic. I believe a lot of the world has gone into PTSD. There is going to be a lot of help needed for people to come back out and start being social with each other. I hope this is part of that. I think it is really fun to listen to and sing along to the line ‘We’re all going to die’ in almost a comedic way. It makes me laugh and a lot of people have told me it made them burst out laughing. That’s kind of what I want. I’m going to encourage the audience to scream along with me. Because one of the great things many of us need to do after a year and a half of lockdown is we need to scream. I’m going to encourage people to connect with their primal screaming.”

All The Colours of You is released on June 4. James will play the Deer Shed Festival in North Yorkshire on July 31, Scarborough Open Theatre on September 9 and Leeds First Direct Arena on November 25. Visit https://wearejames.com/live/ for more information and to buy tickets.

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