Manchester band James celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of their most successful albums, Laid, this month. Released in 1993, their fifth studio album would turn out to be their most challenging and was their first made with the technical and experimental wizard producer Brian Eno.
He was a member of Roxy Music and has worked with U2, David Bowie,Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Grace Jones and James Blake. Eno describes himself as a non-musician and is described as a “sonic landscaper”. He uses the studio as a compositional tool, which is the title of one his in-depth essays.
James by this time had a string of successful singles and albums and could have taken a much easier route to recording their most experimental album thus far, although no one could have predicted which way the new recordings would go, apart from Brian Eno of course.
Enlisting one of the most sought after producers in the world is one thing but what lay ahead for James was something that would creatively crush most groups.
First they had to convince the much in demand Eno to produce their new album. This arduous task was left to singer Tim Booth who took to the challenge with some trepidation:
“We had approached Eno to produce our very first album and he was always number one on our list. We were massive Talking Heads fans, who he had previously worked with, and every time he worked with a band he always brought the best out of them, so we thought he’s the man to work with.”
“We got no response for years until we sent him some demos and I wrote him a letter and one morning out of the blue, he rang me about 9am and we had an hour and half conversation about music, perfume and pornography. Finally he agreed to make our new album, so we had managed to land him after about 12 years.”
Working with someone as “out there” as Brian Eno was never going to be straightforward — he could well be from planet Mars.
“He came in and listened to all our appalling demos on cassette. He would listen to them for two hours every day and make precise notes and came up with some really interesting ideas and observations and won our respect in days,” beams Booth.
I suppose the mantra is always expect the unexpected and that is exactly what happened. He had worked out a rather punishing and improbable schedule for their next two albums, as guitarist Larry Gott explains:
“One of the reasons we went with him was that he said that we will make this album in just six weeks, which is so quick for us because we are slow workers. We were obviously quite intimidated by the six-week time limit too. We got together and said, we think we need longer and he said he didn’t have any more time to give us.”
The bemused group huddled together to hear Eno’s answer to this less than straightforward problem. The group had always been keen on improvisation in the studio, and on stage, no two James gigs are the same, and Brian had an idea.
Larry continues, “He suggested a very strange solution to this particular problem. Instead of making one album in six weeks, let’s make two he said. If we aim to make one and fail we have nothing. If we aim to make two then we will be able to salvage one album out of the two.”
Bass player Jim Glennie takes up the story. “If it had not have been Eno, we would have sacked him on the spot for being clinically insane and that would have been the end of it. Because we were so in awe of the man, we agreed to go with it and it worked out wonderfully well.”
So the following six weeks were spent working in six different studios, most of the time separated from each other, working through ideas and jams that would make up their most successful album, Laid, and its follow-up a year later, Wah Wah. The genius that is Eno had come up trumps once again.
The title track was a surprise choice as a single and would go on to become a worldwide phenomenon. Larry Gott tells its tale:
“We nearly dropped the song, that’s how good we were at spotting a song’s potential. We recorded that version at a little studio in the middle of nowhere in Wales and it’s really scrappy, the timings all over the place, and Brian absolutely loved it.
“For us it was a throwaway song and a bit too easy in a way. It sounded like a B side and we tried to record it properly and failed miserably. We could not get it anywhere near as good as the home-made scrappy demo version and Brian said just leave it.
“There is something wonderful about it and it’s full of mistakes, it’s scruffy sounding, it’s not got a chorus, it’s a strange little thing and some guy at the American record company said, ‘This is the single,’ and we went you are kidding. He was obviously spot on. We do not trust our commercial instincts, we don’t have a sense of what’s commercial, we just make music that we fall in love with and then it ends up on a record. Other people know more about theses things than we do.”
So one big happy accident or something that was subliminally worked out between band and producer? Whatever happened and the thought process behind it, it worked. Two great albums were recorded in six weeks and one of them is celebrating its 20th anniversary, which still sounds as fresh and as relevant as it did 20 years ago.
Hear 20 Years of Laid this Saturday at 10pm on Absolute Radio and Sunday night at 6pm on Absolute Radio 90s