The guitarguitar Interview: Saul Davies from James
Published on 14 December 2018
James are a band with incredible staying power. For well over 30 years, James have proven that Indie Rock with depth and soul can outlast any fad or scene. Initially signed to the legendary Manchester label Factory Records, James hit big in 1990 with enduring hit Sit Down. Stardom ensued, including collaborations with Brian Eno, tours with Neil Young and over 7 million records sold.
Nothing like a 'heritage' act, James continue to break new ground with each album, exploring their sound with verve and gusto. Lead singer Tim Booth has become something of a legend in certain circles but the band take it all in their stride, working to give audiences across the world an immersive experience like no other.
James's line up has always had a certain fluidity with members leaving and even re-joining throughout the band's history. Guitarist and violinist Saul Davies has been in James since the late 80s, becoming a principal songwriter within the band's nucleus and even serving as co-producer on 2001's Pleased to Meet You.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Saul midway through James' arena tour of the UK and found him to be engaging, honest and happy to share details on life inside James!
Saul, you’ve played guitar with James for decades now, but you were originally hired as a violinist! Would you say violin is still your ‘first’ instrument?
Well, I love the violin - it’s an interesting and challenging thing to play, especially in this group, but I must say, I particularly enjoy the electric guitar as a vehicle for expressing myself more and more these days...
Since James regrouped in 2007, you have put out a number of albums, all of which sound vital and fresh. How has James been able to remain so ‘alive’ sounding after all this time? I’m thinking of ‘Picture of this Place’ from your newest record ‘Living in Extraordinary Times’ as a good example.
We don’t shirk the responsibility we feel for trying new ideas and we have never been interested in just playing catalogue, so because of that, we seem to generate new music that people enjoy quite easily. We are lucky in that we do not fear new things even as we get older...
The sound of James is very much that of an ensemble: everybody seems to contribute. With 7 members in the band, does that ever become difficult to manage?
It’s difficult to manage and it’s tough to be democratic or be in a democracy. However, we all value each other very much so therein lies the reason that we still continue to work so well together.
Since you started playing guitar in James, there have always been two guitarists. How does playing with Adrian Oxaal differ from playing with Larry Gott?
Adrian taught me to play guitar when I was 16 so I owe him deep gratitude. He is an intuitive, technical guitarist, a great musician and being together once again in James is a privilege. We understand each other seamlessly. Larry was different, more sonic, flighty, a searcher and a bit of a purist. Other than Ry Cooder, I’ve never heard a better slide player...
From what I gather, everyone in the band has very different personalities. Do you find that compromise plays a big part in being in a band for so long?
Compromise is everything. And I find that as I get older, I am able to let so many more things just go - you know part of being young is that everything matters all of the time but as you “grow up” you realise that this might not be true!
With so many musicians together, how does the writing process for James work?
4 of us write the songs. It’s challenging getting in a room together to make a noise, record it, edit and create.
James are famous for their spiritual and uplifting perspective. Does that mainly come from vocalist Tim or are you all on the same page in that respect?
I don’t know what spiritualism is or where you would even go to find it... Is it a bloke sitting silently on the top of a pole for 30 years? I doubt it somehow...
Haha, ok. James are also known for staring difficult life experiences in the eye and tackling them head-on: do you think that is one of the reasons for the band’s longevity?
All people have difficulties, real or imagined, to face in their lives so I don’t believe we are different in any way.
I often get an ‘oceanic’ or even maritime feel when I listen to James: is that in there or am I just bringing that to it myself?
That sounds like a good response to our sound and I know what you mean - the ocean swells and our music does too from time to time. It’s a consequence of there being so many musicians in the group perhaps.
Aside from Tim, you are perhaps the band’s most ‘visible’ member. Do you get recognised a lot? I ask that because James sell out stadiums, yet I get the feeling you guys can still move around with some anonymity? Is that the perfect situation?
No one recognises me, I don’t believe - and I like it that way. If we had been “famous” then that would have been different I guess but we never made it to the really dizzy heights of success like R.E.M or Oasis for example. Every truly famous person I ever met (apart from Brian Eno) seemed to be badly affected by being so lauded...
Ah yes, Brian Eno! I was going to get to him... James are, I think, the only band ever to have worked with this legendary man on FIVE full albums: what is that relationship like?
We got along fine. He’s a good man, a thinker and a doer. Quite practical In many ways. I think of Brian fondly. He was a bit hard on me initially but we came to respect each other and one of my happiest moments was being given a co-production for still my favourite James album Pleased To Meet You along with Brian.
During the 90s, I remember the ‘indie rags’ like NME being particularly vicious about James for no real reason. Do you feel a sense of vindication to still be out touring massive venues, effectively outlasting your critics?
No, vindication would come if we had felt that we needed to prove something. I understand entirely that our culture works the way that it does - to eulogise and then destroy and I have no problem with that. The people That wrote such awful things about us had their perspective at the time, we were perhaps fair game, we took it on the chin and moved on. There is an uneasy peace between us and the press and I like it.
James have played many interesting and unusual gigs over the years including an acoustic tour with Neil Young and a massive gig at Alton Towers. Do any particular moments stand out for you?
Yes, the Neil Young tour and Alton Towers! Sorry, but true!
Going back a bit, what were your musical influences growing up?
Floyd, Zeppelin, the Who, CSN and Y, Joni Mitchell, the Doors, Hendrix, Little Feat, the Eagles, Roy Harper, first 2 Dire Straits albums, Captain Beefheart, John Martyn, Kraftwerk, Can, Blind Faith, Sabbath, the Beatles of course, the Stones, the Cars, the Cure, Talking Heads, Dylan.
James have been together since 1982 but you joined in 1988: were you a fan of the band before joining them?
No, I didn't know them.
Ah, ok. Saul, let’s talk guitars! I’ve seen you with a stunning Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, do you still play that?
No, Larry had that away... I bought a lovely Gretsch Electromatic with a Bigsby recently and have been enjoying that very much. I still love my Burns 12 string that rings out like hell and my US Tele - it’s a classic, a stalwart and it just fits my hands. I had my much Coveted G&L ASAT stolen at the airport in Lisbon years ago and got the Tele to replace it - it’s not as good I don’t think but still...
What other guitars do you prefer? What do you take out on tour with you?
I love my Fender VI baritone - it’s a beautiful thing to look at and hold, even if it’s not plugged in! And I take the 12 string Godin that I’ve had for almost 30 years on tour - songs like Ring the Bells, Sometimes and Tomorrow don’t really work without that guitar in the mix.
How about strings and picks, any preferences?
I use 10’s on the electrics, occasionally 11’s in the studio. And I’ve started using a lighter pick - the Jim Dunlop .60’s at the moment.
What do you favour, amp wise? Do your choices for recording differ from your touring choices?
Studio gear depends often on who we work with and what gear they bring in. Live I am using a Fender Bassman head into a mid 70’s Orange 4x12 cab which gives rich, warm tones, perfect for the violin and acoustic guitars when they’re not DI’d and alongside that an 80’s Marshall JCM 800 for clarity and bite. I keep the gain channel on on the Marshall at all times so as I dig in it bites. It sounds great!
That is a FANTASTIC selection of amps, Saul! Do you use any pedals?
I have some lovely vintage pedals (Big Muff, Big Cheese etc) that I have on a board in the lock-up but recently decided to get a Line 6 Helix, so I’ve spent the past month pissing about with it and it’s getting there. There’s a versatility I’m not too bothered about - I’m more looking to find some basic patches that recreate the vintage gear for live, to help create a solid bottom line. I’ve put a Mesa Boogie Grid Slammer in line first at hand height so I can mess about with volumes and overdrives in real time... It’s working well and I’m becoming more and more convinced by the sounds. At home I also use an Eventide H3000 S.E. in line with a Budda amp: the Eventide is still unsurpassed as a shaping tool in my view.
What about acoustic guitars? Songs like ‘Sometimes’ need lots of that, right?
I mentioned the Godin 12 before. I also use a Martin onstage and a second Godin 6 string which I use into the amps. My favourite guitar, part of my history as a musician, was stolen from me years ago. It was bought with money from the first James gigs I did in March 1989... An amazing Lowden with a very low serial number - in the 20’s as I recall. It’s priceless but gone... Fuck it.
That's a pretty horrible tale. We know how incredible and precious Lowden guitars are. Okay, let's change the subject, haha. Do you write songs or ideas when you are on the road at all? And if so, how do you record them?
Not really, (I write) normally at home where I can record into Cubase or when we get together to jam.
What things do you do on tour to keep sane?
Exercise and have my kids with me!
Exercise seems to be a factor with a lot of the touring artists we speak to. Is being on stage for you now as good as ever?
Yes, I like it. I feel at home on the stage. It holds no fear for me other than the fear of volume getting out of control...
Do you find that your audience breathes new life into some of the older songs that you’ve now played countless times?
I think our relationship to our audience is what keeps us all fresh. They expect to be challenged and we are happy to oblige.
Lots of the energy of a James concert seems to be almost trance-like and shamanic: is this something you are striving for?
No, I don’t think so. I believe people do have those experiences and we can too - get lost in it all and find ourselves away from normal thought processes and experience of daily life but I’d worry if we made too much of a claim in this direction.
Perhaps it's more of a shared moment between performer and audience. Saul, you’ve been in the industry for 3 decades now: what are your tips for longevity and also for being a good band member?
Without being too platitudinous I’d say let go, remind yourself of the fortunate position you are in - being an artist, to provoke is a privilege made possible by the existence of the audience so they must be valued. But if you pamper to that you’ll end up lost and self-defeated so it’s apparently all a balance...
That's very wise advice, thank you! Do you have any musical projects outside of James at the moment?
No, although I am writing with my boy Vinny... Not sure why other than it sounds good and he gets to play the piano and the drums.
Future potential! Finally, what is next for James and what is next on the horizon for you?
Now we play some shows and then start work on some new demos of songs that we wrote over the summer that will constitute our 16th studio album - then there’ll be more shows in the Summer. For me, well, I’m trying to be a good dad to my kids and that’s my main focus.
Saul, Thank you so much for your time!
We'd like to thank Saul for his time and candidness. We also like to thiank Daisy Hearn for all her help in setting up the interview.
Interview by Ray McClelland