Culture, Interview, Manchester, Music

“If you go looking for a hit record you won’t find one”: Saul Davies on James’ new record, the privilege of being a musician and marmite

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Featured Image: Lewis Knaggs


The chances that you’ve heard the iconic line, “Oh sit down, sit down next to me” blaring out of the radio, at the club or pub is highly probable. The brains behind the hit track ‘Sit Down’ is James, a mainstay in the indie-pop music scene since their formation in 1982. After the release of ‘Sit Down’ in 1991, they’ve released fifteen albums and have sold over 25 million copies while selling out shows across the globe. Almost four decades may have passed, however, the band is far from relinquishing its control over the airwaves. 

The formerly Manchester-based band consists of Jim Glennie (bass and backing vocals), Tim Booth (lead vocals), Adrian Oxaal (cello and lead guitar), David Baynton-Power (drums), Saul Davies (guitar, backing vocals, percussion, and violin), Mark Hunter (piano and keyboard), and Andy Diagram (trumpet, backing vocals and percussion).

Recently, the band has released their sixteen-studio album, All The Colours Of You. The track list is as follows: ‘ZERO’, ‘All the Colours of You’, ‘Recover’, ‘Beautiful Beaches’, Wherever It Takes Us’, ‘Hush’, ‘Miss America’, ‘Getting Myself Into’, ‘Magic Bus’, ‘Isabella’, and ‘XYST’. Every track tackles the profound topics which the band has become known for – from ‘Recover’ tackling long-distance grief to ‘All The Colours of You’ discussing Covid, racism, and the Trump-era response to both.

It also marks the first release on their new label Virgin Music Label & Artists Services, as well as their new publishing home Kobalt Music. Recording began before lockdown happened and it was produced by Grammy award-winning producer Jacknife Lee, who’s worked with the likes of U2, REM, Taylor Swift, Snow Patrol, and The Killers. It may have only been his first time working with the band, however, he easily found his groove with them and worked coincidentally with his Topanga Canyon neighbour, Booth, and Glennie.

Jacknife successfully added splashes of colour to their demos and created a collection of powerful tracks, ready to be unleashed on an arena tour – which they have planned to commence in the UK later this year. They’ve already sold 60,000 tickets and it’s the fastest-selling in the history of the band – it seems that the public’s thirst for James is yet to be quenched.

aAh! Magazine caught up with multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies over Zoom to find out more about maintaining his passion for the violin, how his writing process has changed, and the lunacy of those who purchase a ticket just to heckle a band member.

Lewis Knaggs

I used to hear ‘Sit Down’ at Manchester club, 42’s. Why do you think your music has continued to resonate with audiences for so long?

“Well, it’s probably about always feeling that there was more work to do, and perhaps feeling that you weren’t quite successful enough to want to stop. It’s been like this ever since I joined the band in 1989, but over the last decade or so, it’s been very much in our mind to make records. Make sure our fans get new music and make sure that we are happy with that music. We kind of believe that, if we like it, then our fans will. So, it’s really about a passion for what we do and a feeling of incompleteness.”

Yeah, definitely. When you joined the band in 1989, it was because you were seen playing the violin at Band on the Wall. How have you maintained your passion for the violin for so long?

“Well, it’s not a very easy instrument to play. I don’t think it’s a very pleasant instrument for people to hear. And, it’s a pretty unfamiliar sound in rock and roll, broadly in guitar music, let’s call it. So, it tends to pigeonhole artists, like if you have a violin and you play fiddle, then you’re a folk band. And, so the trick for me has always been to use it very sparingly, and, to try and find ways to use it, which enhance the overall sound of a particular song. Certainly, it’s difficult to capture on a record, because you have to create a lot of space for it if you’re going to do. But like when I play it, I like it to be quite sonic and you wouldn’t necessarily know it was a violin. It’s just a bit noisy. And, I quite like the aggression. If the violin is in the right hands, it can go from being a very poetic instrument to being very hardcore and kind of aggressive, especially when using effects and stuff. The trick is not to be too good at it. If you get too good, then it gets too fancy. And then, I think it falls to bits.”

I’ve listened to the new record and I enjoyed hearing parts of it on there. Do you have any favourite stories from making that record? 

“There aren’t a lot of stories with the record because it was made in such a strange way. The starting point of the record was very traditional in the sense that four of us got together in a room and made some noise. We did that variously in three places in Britain, and the last session we did was up in the northwest coast of Scotland, where I live and where Jimmy [Glennie] lives. And so, little did we know, like everybody, as to what was coming. So, we were lucky because we did the jamming, out of which we could create demos, and from those demos, create a record. We’d done all of that work before, if we hadn’t we wouldn’t have been able to do anything. So, we were very lucky in that respect. Although four of us were together in the room in the initial writing stage, none of us were together when the record was developed into completion. So, Tim [Booth] was able to work very closely with Jacknife [Lee] in California. They discovered that they were neighbours. So, just a few miles apart. So, that was as close as it could get really and there were no opportunities at all, for any of us to go to America and get involved in that in any kind of physical proximity. So, as and when Jacknife couldn’t use parts that he thought he needed from the original instrumentals, he would call the rest of us up. So, I suppose it would be a very familiar story, I imagine, from almost all artists who have made a record over the last year. We all share in one way or another, the same experience with distance and this kind of stuff.”

Definitely. If there is a track that you’re most excited for people to hear from the album?

“The track which opens the record, ’Zero’. I like it very much. I’m fond of pretty much everything on the record. But I think as an opening song, it’s a great place for it to be and I like the attitude of the song. It’s also got a huge melody in it. So it’s a big pop song as well at the same time. We had the opportunity to rehearse recently, during the last couple of weeks and the first time we played the song as a band, it was pretty interesting. It was a bit crap to start with, but we kind of got it together, I think. Where are you based?” 

I’m based in Manchester at the moment.

“That’s interesting. So, we were at a place just near Skipton, just north of Manchester, in a place called Broughton Hall and it’s a remarkable building. We were, amazingly enough, given a big, big space to work in and a space for all of us to be accommodating, because there’s a lot of us. We went from living in our little houses across the world to being in this big mad stately home, where it felt very weird to be in each other’s proximity and to be in that environment. It was very strange I have to say. So, momentarily, the songs took a backseat as we got to know each other again, took our masks off, and said ‘hello’ to each other. But it was pretty hardcore because we had to keep our distance from each other. And, we had to have tests before we went, of course. So, like for most people going back to their working hours, it’s a bit different.”

On the record, did you have any favourite parts which Jacknife added in?

“I love his productions. Obviously, he has an amazing catalogue of records that he’s made. But I really like the way in this record that he dealt with the rhythm tracks directly. I can see that he just kind of really splashes things together. He was using some original drum machine parts that we jammed the songs to originally, which was cool in some cases, and then adding loops and recorded parts. And, things that Dave gave him. I really like the way that he pieces rhythm tracks together. So, it ends up sounding super polished. But when you listen to the individual tracks, and the standards as we would call them, the kind of stereo tracks of the individual parts: drums, bass, guitars, whatever, they’re really rough. But something happens in the way that he puts it together, that it ends up being quite seamless. I really enjoy his approach to rhythm. And, there’s a kind of a basic intelligence to the whole way that he’s put the record together. I mean, it could have been a total car crash. And, I think it’s far from that.”

When you write, do you ever have a favourite kind of drink, instrument, or room to work in?

“We’ve done a lot of work in Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield. There’s a room at the end of the corridor, which we’ve done a lot of really good writing in it. But in terms of actual instrumentation, I’ve got this beautiful 12 string electric guitar made by Burns, and I love to play that. Because even just with one chord, you get so much detail and tone out of it. And all of these beautiful string things happening, that even with one chord, it can suggest so much kind of melodic stuff that you can imagine happening. And, it fills everything up. So, that’s the downside of it, because it’s very full of sound. But I do really like it. And sometimes you just pick it up and put a cap on. And, it’s really nice, when you get further up the neck and just put a cap on it and just play a chord. And, this is where I listen to it and realise that it’s usually out of tune because 12 string guitars are really hard to keep in tune. If you play guitar, you might have played a 12 string at some point. And, they’re difficult beasts. That guitar is really an amazing tool to us when we write.”

Actually, in the history of James, do you have any favourite lyrics?

“Well, Tim exclusively writes the words, I guess we’ve probably all got our favourites, and then maybe some members of our band don’t even bother listening to them. They’re just bothered about what they’re doing. I think he’s written some great lyrics. Sometimes the things that look like the simplest things have the most meaning. There’s a great line from a song called ‘Five-O’ on our album Laid. It’s a very simple line. It just says, ‘I could be the man I see in your eyes’. And, I that always kills me that line. I think that’s amazing. It’s really poetic and very poignant as well, I think.” 

 Is there ever a moment where a song in a strange place comes together for you? 

“I guess it’s quite unpredictable. When we’re working on demos, we’ve done our writing, and sometimes, you’ll find that it’s midnight and you’re just about to go to bed and you think hang on a minute. Then, you get an idea for something, and then I run across my garden into my little studio space and start hammering away on a drum kit or doing whatever to try to bring to life the idea that you’ve had. I used to drink quite a lot and for the last 14 years, I have not drunk any alcohol at all. So, I would say that when I was either writing material or contributing to the writing material in the late 90s, that there was quite a lot of alcohol involved. You don’t go to bed, you stay up all night doing mad stuff. And, it’s only the day or the day after that you get an opportunity to analyse whether it’s any good. But that means some good things came out of that kind of stuff. Some big songs for us came out of that process. But that’s not a process that I would be interested in, or a way of being, that I would be interested in revisiting now at all. But we were very open to mistakes, and we’re very open to chance meetings of people and chords. And, when we go into our writing, we don’t have any preconceptions of what we’re going to do. We’re not looking for a hit record or anything. We’re wise enough to know that if you go looking for a hit record, you won’t find one.”

That’s really interesting. Obviously, you’ve got the live tour and everything in December and November. You’ve already sold 60,000 tickets. What are you most looking forward to about the return of gigs?

“Truthfully, and I don’t mean this in a silly way, but I just look forward to it happening because I remain to be convinced that it will because it’s six, seven months away. And, anything could happen in that period. So, I would just be absolutely overjoyed if we can actually get out on the road and do it. And then, once everyone knows that they are going and that we are going to do them and it’s all happening and it’s all great. Well, then partly some of it will be about getting through it. Because there’ll be a huge wave of expectation on us from our friends, you can’t sell 60,000 tickets and not have a party. But we all want to play this record. And, it’s great that this record is coming out in relation to the tour so early, because people will know it, and they’ll be really familiar with it. And, they’ll have their favourites and will be able to sing along and shout out for new songs and make fools of themselves. So, I think the tour will be fantastic, I think there will be some special nights. I think it’s only seven shows but there’s always a surprise. The show that you hope will go the most well usually is not a failure, but it’s usually a bit disappointing because you can’t reach the expectations that you have for yourself. And then, you go and do a show where you have maybe less expectation for and it’s better, but our shows tend to be great. Our fans walk away from those events wanting to come back. They want to hear, of course, some old songs and favourites but they also want to hear new stuff that we’re doing. It’ll be a real challenge as it’s perilously close to Christmas. So, there’s going to be a mad party atmosphere. So, we’re gonna have to get it right, so that we can challenge ourselves, but people also get what they need from the event.” 

Definitely, you’ve become known for having a raucous stage presence and for inciting the audience to sing along. Has this always been your role in the band and were you a bit nervous at first?

“I think as time goes by, you find that people don’t need that much encouragement. They’ll do it themselves. I mean, communication between someone on the stage and the audience is kind of ever-shifting because we don’t rehearse a lot because we don’t choreograph our shows. Everything kind of happens in a moment. So, you can find yourself doing things. Maybe you look back on even some of those things, and think, ‘God I made a real fool of myself’. But it doesn’t matter because you’re in a moment. Generally speaking, it’s all really, really positive. Occasionally, you might have somebody who wants to point the finger at you and wants you dead for whatever, the crimes against indie-pop. You end up in some kind of ongoing and very strange distanced conversation with somebody that hates you, as you try to turn them around. You never know what you’re going to get from your audience. It’s pretty cool really. I must say that this happens very infrequently. I would ask if somebody comes along and takes all of the efforts and pays all the money and all the rest of it to come to a gig and they just want to slag off a band member, it just seems really stupid. What’s your motivation for it? I don’t quite get it. So, it’s going to be remarkable to go back on the road. And I think there will be some shows I hope during September here. Let’s see, we were probably going to do some earlier in the summer that have moved, more abroad things, but they will be an amazing precursor to the shows in the UK.”

Do you have a small piece of advice for anyone who is aspiring to get into music?

“Oh, God, it’s such a hard question. The only advice I would give is, we started this interview by essentially saying, that if you make music that you really like, then there will be people out there that will like it. And then, you really need to think about why you’re going into making music. If you go into music to make money, then you will definitely fail. If you go into music, just to make music, and be a band and be friends and create experiences like that, then maybe you’ll be super successful. Maybe you will be able to pay your bills. But it’s a privilege to be a musician, it’s a privilege to stand on stage in front of people, it’s a privilege for the audience to hear you as well. I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of that. There’s no good God-given right to be in a band. It’s just a series of mistakes, that bands exist anyway. Somebody invented an amplifier. We owe so much of what we do to some of those amazing artists that kind of pioneered it all in the first place, Little Richard, The Beatles, all those people. So, when you join in, you have to think about what a privilege it is to join in. Whether it’s 50 people that are standing in front of you, 500 or 5000, it’s all just part of the same thing.”

Finally, is there anything which you’ve never been asked, but you wished that you had?

“That’s a very, very good question. And, truthfully, you’ve caught me off guard in the sense that I actually can’t. I think I’ve probably been asked everything I can almost imagine ever being asked that would be appropriate in an interview. I mean, I’m sure somebody will surprise me at some point and I will go, ‘What?!’ But no, I can’t imagine what it would be. Well, I’m staring at a tin of beans. So, nobody’s ever asked me for example, which would be more valuable, me as a musician or a tin of beans? For example, well, there’s some Marmite over there. I know the answer to that one. I’m a bit of a Marmite fiend. So, I would put marmite above music, perhaps.”

Their latest album, All The Colours Of You, is available on all major streaming services. It is available to purchase here. You can also purchase tickets for their tour here.

UK Tour Dates

NOVEMBER

Thu 25 LEEDS First Direct Arena

Fri 26 BIRMINGHAM Utilita Arena

Sun 28 CARDIFF Motorpoint Arena

Tue 30 GLASGOW SSE Hydro

DECEMBER

Wed 01 DUBLIN 3 Arena

Fri 03 MANCHESTER Arena (Sold Out) 

Sat 04 LONDON Wembley Arena

UK Festival Dates

JUNE

Thu 24 LONDON Heritage Live @ Kenwood House

JULY

Fri 30 GLASGOW Playground Weekender

Sat 31 MARGATE Dreamland

AUGUST

Sun 01 DERBYSHIRE Y Not Festival

Sat 21 DEVON Beautiful Days 

SEPTEMBER

Thu 02 LANCASTER Highest Point Festival

Sat 04 WARRINGTON Neighbourhood Weekender

Thu 09 SCARBOROUGH Open Air Theatre

Fri 17 ISLE OF WIGHT Isle of Wight Festival

Keep up with James:

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About the author / 

Camilla Whitfield

Third Year BA English with Overseas Study | Music Editor | Manchester & Cumbria | Music & Gig Enthusiast

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