Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
It’s easy to get the wrong idea about U.K. rock band James and its music. In America, the group’s best-known song is 1993’s overtly sexual “Laid,” a modern rock hit that became the signature tune of the American Pie movie series. Admittedly, the song is musically irresistible, between its strummy acoustic guitars, vocalist Tim Booth’s preening falsetto, and the rapid-fire tempo. Plus, the tune’s storyline—being wildly attracted to someone crazy, and how that experience is both intoxicating and slightly frightening—is charmingly relatable and subversive; in fact, the band managed to slip a sexual reference past the censors (“she only comes when she’s on top,” a phrase later sometimes changed to “sings” to appease the faint of heart).
But James was far from a bawdy band—and “Laid” ended up sounding like a gigantic anomaly on the 1993 album of the same name. Produced by Brian Eno—the first of five James records on which he would work—Laid is an intimate record that sounds lit by flickering candlelight. With the exception of the deceptively Britpoppy “Low Low Low,” the galloping folk-pop ballad “Sometimes,” and U2-esque “Say Something,” the album emphasizes mood and texture above all else. Eno and James meticulously sculpted the music into textured arrangements featuring loads of space and nuance: fluttering acoustic guitars and oceanic electric guitars; simple, spare percussion; the occasional midnight-hued violin. Booth largely tones down his cathartic, skyscraping vocals. If anything, he sounds worn-out and philosophical as he examines the wreckage of a romantic and spiritual life, and explores the possibilities (and perils) intrinsic to love, religion, and mythology.
Laid arrived when James was at a turning point in its career. When the band convened at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in early 1993 to record the album, it had finally become a stadium-sized draw in the U.K., thanks to the chart success of several songs—a carefree-sounding, revamped version of older song “Sit Down,” caterwauling anthem “Sound,” and the horn-rippled “Born Of Frustration.” This success was more than a decade in the making: The Manchester-formed group originally coalesced in 1982, and had opened for The Smiths, released a series of EPs and LPs, and already dealt with record-label shenanigans and lineup instability during its career.
In America, however, James was still a cult act; in fact, the group had just managed to play its first shows in the U.S. ever in 1992. Still, there were signs of momentum. That same year, “Born Of Frustration” was a Top 5 hit on modern-rock radio, and the band opened for Neil Young as he toured in support of his then-new album, Harvest Moon. This particular series of shows proved to be influential to Laid’s eventual direction—especially because Young requested they play acoustically, something James had never done outside of radio sessions.
“Because we absolutely loved Neil Young, there’s no way we were going to say no,” James co-founder and bassist Jim Glennie told The A.V. Club. “The first gig was in Red Rocks in Colorado, and in front of people who were not a James audience by any stretch of the imagination. We had no equipment—we had a very sparse drum kit with a kick drum and a floor tom, no amplifiers. [It was] just very, very, very stripped-down and naked. We were terrified—we were absolutely terrified.”
At the time, Young’s tour was equally basic and stripped-down—just him and “a box of musical instruments onstage—air-pump organ, bass guitars, banjo,” Glennie said. “And he just took whatever instrument he fancied and played whatever song he fancied. It was brilliant.” Watching him reimagine his songs every night—and having to revamp their own catalog in such a radical way—had a profound influence on James as the group approached Laid: “It gave us the confidence to pull everything back down to the basics, and not overblow things, not try too hard.”
Fortuitously, the band had the right producer on board to wrangle this new approach. To say working with Brian Eno was a career-long dream for James is an understatement. “We’d been trying to work with Brian since the first album we did—back in the [1986’s] Stutter days, we sent demos to his management, and we wouldn’t hear anything,” Glennie said with a good-natured laugh. “With Laid, we had a bunch of demos already done, and Tim addressed a personal letter to Brian courtesy of his management, with a cassette of the demos. Again, we just [assumed] we wouldn’t hear anything.
“Unbeknownst to us, Brian had gone on holiday and taken a bunch of things to listen to while he was away, one of which was our demo. He kind of fell in love with it. When he came back, he personally rang Tim up—it never works that way normally—Tim answered the phone and Brian said, ‘Hello, this is Brian Eno.’ I think Tim was seriously taken aback by it.”
Eno immediately exerted his influence on the band: Despite only having six weeks of studio time booked, he encouraged James to complete not one but two records. (“It’s Eno-type logic, where if you aim for two records, and you fall short, you at least have one record finished,” Glennie observed.) There was a method to Eno’s madness: James had a reputation for being studio perfectionists—a classic case of the group being unable to get out of its own way—and also took itself very seriously. “We must’ve been a nightmare to work with,” Glennie recalled. “It was just a puritanical work ethic, where everybody had to be there all day until the last thing at night. [Recording was] just quite a laborious, difficult process—not fun. It wasn’t considered to be fun to record songs. [Laughs.] I think Eno thought, ‘This is not going to help the record,’ that seriousness of attitude and also that studious approach to it.”
The producer enlisted the help of his engineer at the time, Markus Dravs (who’s gone on to work with Arcade Fire, Björk, and Mumford And Sons, among others) to provide distraction in the form of a second studio setup in the Real World complex. James would start their usual process by which they crafted songs—described by Glennie as “a bunch of improvisation, a bunch of jamming, basically”—and then this music would be whisked away to Dravs “straightaway” for tinkering. “It was a bit of a production line: We’d jam, those would go over to Markus to start properly messing about with,” Glennie recalled. “I think Brian was happy for us to be actively involved in that process, to try and keep it away from the main studio.”
Much of this improvisation ended up on the second album recorded during the six-week period, 1994’s Wah Wah—a diverse, patchwork-sounding record that touched on abstract electronic experiments and noisy rock tangles. But Laid also ended up having incredible detail. Each song has layers of intricate sounds and atmosphere, from the violin curving through “Dream Thrum” to the burbling electro-pop beats of “Skindiving” and acoustic counter-melodies adding melancholy to “One Of The Three.” James’ earliest records were somewhat basic-sounding—The Smiths influence loomed large, as did the jangly indie-pop popular in the mid-’80s in the U.K. By the early ’90s, the band had added majestic horns and had gravitated toward grandiose sounds. But Laid was mysterious and full of different layers to unpeel (and sounds to discover) on repeated listens.
“There’s a lot more subtle musicality going,” Glennie described. “We allowed ourselves to do that on that record. If you worked with Brian Eno, and he’s happy with what you do, you’re more accepting to go with the flow. That was the first record we’d had the confidence to do that, just to leave things alone.”
Still, James viewed Laid and Wah Wah as a complementary pair; in fact, the group wanted to release the albums together, which didn’t happen at the time. (A new super-deluxe reissue unites the two records, along with demos, rarities, and unreleased tracks.) “We bumped into problems with the record company’s ability to deal with [releasing both albums at once]” Glennie said. “I think they thought it would confuse people, which is a shame, really—I wish now in reflection we had just kind of pushed them regardless and done it.”
Indeed, Laid’s success in the pop realm meant that when Wah Wah eventually did come out in 1994, it felt like a bizarre detour and attempt at career sabotage rather than a bookend to a wonderful recording experience. Until 1997’s Whiplash—which contained the hit “She’s A Star”—James felt like a one-album phenomenon in the U.S., just another part of the ’90s modern-rock novelty culture. Yet Laid was a quietly influential collection—a record that showed other veteran bands that reinvention and success was possible on their own terms, even after years of slogging it out. Plus, the carrot of “Laid” (and, to a lesser extent, “Say Something”) significantly expanded James’ fan base; people bought the album for those songs, and discovered a band with plenty more to offer than ribald shtick.
To the members of James themselves, Laid was pivotal to their future, a dividing line between their uneven early days and a newfound joyful approach to music, which endured well beyond the six-week sessions. Today, Glennie can hear how the band changed on the record, and what kind of impact it still has on James today. “There’s something in Laid—a freedom in Laid, an approach to the music—that we allowed ourselves just to play and not get too self-conscious about the rest of the world out there. That’s added something very, very special to the record. There’s a freedom and a kind of vulnerability to it, and quite a naturalness… It’s what we do when we play gigs live—we improvise, we try and respond rather than just going through the motions. We try and do [things] a little bit different. The essence of that is on [Laid].”