James frontman Tim Booth on songwriting during ‘interesting times’

Tim Booth and James will perform in NYC Friday at The Rooftop at Pier 17. 
Tim Booth and James will perform in NYC Friday at The Rooftop at Pier 17.  Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

There’s an adage that goes, "may you live in interesting times.” But we’re in an era where everything is either amazing or terrible, and so the stakes must be raised.

In 2018, James, the British rock band best known on U.S. shores for the 1993 song “Laid,” put out one of its best albums in the group’s 37 years, titling it “Living in Extraordinary Times.” On it, the group struggles with all sides of this epoch — the love, the fear, the hate, and the tears.

amNewYork caught up with James lead singer Tim Booth, ahead of the band’s first American stop of its tour with Psychedelic Furs, to talk about those times, writing a “political” song, and what the Los Angeles resident loves about New York.

“Living in Extraordinary Times” can be taken either positively or negatively. How hard is it, right now, to find the positive?

I’m blessed enough to live a life where there are moments of ecstatic joy and love. But unfortunately, as the lyric goes, “while the bodies pile up, face down on the beach,” you know. I don’t believe we can be fully happy until everybody’s OK. And the power that has taken over the moment, that kickback of nationalism or racism or misogyny that has seized control of the United States and quite a few other countries — we’re in one of those periods right now, and the headway that we were making forward towards, hopefully, an inclusive society, towards more egalitarian society, has been well and truly whacked.

Culturally, how do we reclaim that momentum?

I sing on one song, “I’m unfaithful to the culture that I’m in.” I’m unfaithful to this culture, and I think we all should be unfaithful to this culture. Because the culture is bull—-. … The fact that we are wired up to 24/7 news feeds means that our minds think we’re living in hell. [But] it’s no good getting depressed by these things, because then we become impotent. We become ineffectual. Radical happiness is a great weapon against this culture.

On “Many Faces,” from the album, it seems like unity is another answer to facing this culture head-on.

I think as humans, especially with our screens, with our phones, we’re getting more and more insular, in a weird way connected cyborg-ly, to our phone. And when people sing [the song’s coda] “there’s only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here,” as a mantra, you can palpably feel them get happier. … If we can create those moments of secular spirituality, where people feel unity — that’s half our problem. We feel so isolated.

The first song on the album, “Hank,” might be one of the most openly political songs James has ever recorded.

I’ve probably only written, I would say, maybe seven or eight political songs out of 200-300 songs. There’s only two, I’d say, direct ones on this record. … I had no choice but to write those songs. I write from the unconscious, but my unconscious was getting so (expletive) pissed off that it could no longer be unconscious. I mean, [Trump] was coming to power when I wrote these songs. And it was so outrageous watching it. [But] I need to make it clear: there’s only two songs directly political on this album. The rest of it is quite uplifting and shamanic.

Over 37 years of performing and touring, you’ve had plenty of chances to play in New York. You now live in L.A. — does that change your impression of the city?

It’s so much the antithesis of L.A., where in L.A. everyone’s in their cars and nobody bumps into each other on the street. In New York, you’re crammed together. You can’t escape other humans and I think that’s a really good thing, a really healthy thing. … It’s probably the city-est city in the West, basically.

IF YOU GO: James plays with The Psychedelic Furs at 6 p.m. on Friday at The Rooftop at Pier 17, 89 South St., pier17ny.com, sold out.

More from around NYC