Interview / Better call Saul: In conversation with Saul Davies

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Music Editor Alexia Kirov chats with James multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies about the band's fifteenth album, Living in Extraordinary Times, touring with Neil Young, and Mamma Mia.

Just days before the release of their fifteenth album, Living in Extraordinary Times, James guitarist, violinist, and percussionist Saul Davies speaks to me from a house in the Yorkshire Dales, where the band are already working on material for its follow up.

The most notable sonic development on this LP - of which Davies has just finished signing 4000 copies (“I’m not joking – I’ve got cramp in my hand!”, he laughs) - is the increased prominence of percussion, on the likes of ‘Hank’, a tirade against the current American political climate, or the similarly political ‘Heads’. “I think there’s a bit of a different rhythmical thing going on for us [on this record]”, says Davies. “We wanted a little bit of clattery stuff on this record... I think, by and large, it’s been quite successful, that approach, really”.

As successful as the final product has been, that’s not to say that this approach hasn’t created any problems for the band. “You listen to a song like ‘Heads’, and think ‘how does a band perform this?’ We’ve got limited resources in terms of people who can play things. Initially, it was really difficult – like, ‘fuck, how are we gonna do this?’. We’ve made this amazing sound, but it’s almost an impossible sound to recreate live without having 10 percussionists, which you can’t do. The stages aren’t big enough, we couldn’t afford it… it would be mad.”

For May’s Better Than That tour, and the subsequent festival dates, James have recruited Debbie Knox-Hewson (who has also played with the likes of Charli XCX and Doe Paoro) to their live line-up, to bring in some of that extra percussion. They have also combatted the problem through the use of loops of the recorded material and replacing the recorded sound with different parts. “We’ve reached a compromise somewhere between using the pre-recorded elements and live elements together, to try and get that power and the clatter of it all. I think we’re getting there”, says Davies.

squadding up with a legend @jowhiley 💕💅

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The prominence of “clattery stuff” on the LP was something that was intentional from the outset. “We were quite insistent on looking for rhythmical ideas that were a little bit different. We wanted somebody to interfere a little bit rhythmically with us”, he says. “So we encouraged a slightly different approach”, when working with producers Charlie Andrew and Beni Giles. “I think Beni’s going to be a real name in the world of production” - he had an integral role in crafting the album. “He came along and initially started helping us with some of the jams that we were doing, [and] helped form them into demos really.”

Davies is no stranger to the production side of things himself, having worked on Unkle Bob’s debut album, Sugar & Spite, in 2006. “I think that the record that I made with them was an amazing record actually – I listened to it the other day and I thought what a beautiful, beautiful album that is. It’s got such a beautiful tone to it, I would love to work with Rick [Webster, Unkle Bob frontman] again, he’s a great songwriter.”

Whilst he has no plans to get involved with any more production work for now, (“at the moment, my concerns are trying to help make what we’re doing work as well as possible… defying the odds a little bit!”, he says), but Davies does make time for some extra-curricular activities beyond James.

Recently, he’s been writing music with his son and daughter, and they’re beginning to think that they’ve “maybe got enough now to make something coherent.” Although his daughter is “only 11”, he says, “she’s very good at jamming, improvising along with stuff”, owing to “the culture she was brought up in really, with us”. James’ music spawns from improvised jamming sessions (their 1994 experimental album, Wah Wah, captures these on record, having been mixed by producer Brian Eno).

Davies says, “At home, we quite like to sit around with instruments and do the same thing. It’s part of the way that we communicate with each other. But if we could make something distinct, like an EP, or even a little album, I think it would be great. We’ve got some very beautiful music; now we just need time to do it. Anyway, let’s see. If we do that, I’ll get back in touch with you!”

As for work that has already been released - James’ last album, 2016’s Girl at the End of the World, narrowly missed knocking Adele’s 25 off the top spot. In fact, it was the fourth time the band had had an album peak at number two – along with 1991’s Gold Mother, 1992’s Seven, and 1999’s Millionaires. That’s not to mention the incident - infamous amongst James fans - of their best known single, ‘Sit Down’, being beaten to number one by Chesney Hawkes’ ‘The One and Only’.

Whilst all this time spent at number two might be testament to the playground rhyme ‘First the worst, second the best’, did the more recent success of Girl put any pressure on the band for what its follow up would bring? “No”, he says, emphatically, “because we know that our record’s coming out the same week as the Mamma Mia [soundtrack], so there’s absolutely no chance… not that it really matters.”

But James have had a number one: 1998’s The Best of compilation. “That was a weird one”, says Davies. “We kept the Titanic soundtrack off number one - a massive movie and a massive soundtrack.” The Best of went triple platinum, selling over 900,000 copies. “It just sounds like it’s from another era. The idea that anybody could sell 900,000 copies of an album now – apart from… Adele, actually - would be impossible, pretty much. I’ll be talking to you from a gold-plated phone if we sell 900,000 albums!”, he laughs - then pauses, before assuring me that, even in the best of circumstances, he would never indulge in such extravagance: “I don’t want you to think that I would be so covetous.”

Gold-plated phones are not the only thing that Davies eschews; he also stays away from social media. “I don’t buy that it is a good thing – I buy that it is a bad thing, despite the fact that people say, ‘but it allows me to connect with my family who are in Australia’, or, ‘my fridge tells me when it’s run out of cucumbers.’ Brilliant, good for the fridge – good for the cucumber! It has ushered in an era of ignorance; it’s self-sustaining and it’s self-perpetuating.”

Whilst he concedes that things like Facebook and Twitter might have their uses, he believes “Alongside that, unfortunately, is this huge, black morass of subterfuge and the pedalling of ignorance that goes on. I fight it in my own way by saying, ‘no – I won’t get involved in that’.”

James recently headlined Latitude’s BBC Music stage; Davies wore a t-shirt that read ‘Fuck Brexit’. “I know that it caused a little bit of a furore recently because I wore my ‘Fuck Brexit’ t-shirt”, he says. “I make no apologies for that.”

He feels that “‘If people don’t stand up and tell each other how they feel about certain issues, from an informed position, then I think our cultural, political and social life is diminished. If we engage with each other in intelligent, but perhaps confrontational ways, then things will change, and consensus could be reached a little bit. But there’s no point in hiding away from some of the things that are going on, in my view.”

He’s not dogmatic about things: “My view is as valid as anyone else’s, and anyone else’s view is as valid as mine.” But at the same time, he believes that “There is a prevailing culture of lying and ignorance and the peddling of ignorance through lies in our political life – which is where Brexit comes from. Then it is beholden upon all of us to say things. Anybody who feels strongly about anything should say it.”

By his own admission, Davies says that as a musician on stage, “the balance of power is in my favour. I’m on the stage, they’re looking at me, and I’m looking at everybody. But it’s a sea of faces, it’s not an individual I’ve got looking at me. I know that puts me in a position of ‘power’, in inverted commas, but nevertheless, it’s a position which I have been given, have taken, and I’ll take.”

There’s also an important distinction to make, he believes: “When I wear my ‘Fuck Brexit’ t-shirt, I’m not a musician at that point - I’m a person. You can say, ‘oh, that guy in that band, he did a thing I don’t like’, but is it the music that’s doing that, or is it just the guy in the band?” he questions.

“Well, I’m the guy in the band, there with my jacket open, pointing at my chest, pointing at ‘Fuck Brexit’; I’m making a statement. I’m given the opportunity to make the statement on the stage because I am a musician, but at that point, that exists outside of me being a musician, I’m not standing there playing – there’s a difference.”

Davies spent the evening before we speak listening to Bob Marley with James keyboardist, Mark Hunter. “His voice, his every single word that he uttered was either in praise of his religion or against political forces that were out to get him. Every single thing he wrote about was informed by those issues”, he says. “People don’t say ‘Oh, Bob Marley was a political writer - I’m not going to listen to him’… I think that’s quite instructive.”

Whilst the album title, Living in Extraordinary Times, refers to the political events that have unfolded since the release of its predecessor in 2016, i.e., the rise of Donald Trump and Brexit, it’s not all political commentary. Davies adds that it is “also an allusion to some of the amazing things that are going on”, citing developments in science and medicine.

“People are becoming ever, ever more aware and more able to deal with ecological issues. Suddenly in the last twelve months, it looks like we’re gonna, in one way or another, deal with plastics in the ocean. Even a year ago, it looked like we were just gonna die in a sea of plastic shit; now, it looks like people are wanting to sort this out. We live in almost - probably inevitably - dreadful times, but we also live in very unbelievable times, positively.”

Davies joined James in 1989, having been scouted by then guitarist Larry Gott at a Manchester improv night. So, after almost 30 years, what have been his most extraordinary times with the band? Supporting Neil Young in America in 1992, he says, “When he had his album, Harvest Moon. We were playing songs from what became Laid and I don’t think I’ll ever experience anything like that again in my life.”

“Being close to him as well, seeing him play every night - he was always one of my heroes, and then I got to be sharing a fucking stage with him and it was just… wow. What a geezer and musician. He’s totally undervalued… Yeah, that was probably the highlight, the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever witnessed. I was pinching myself going, ‘I’m at Red Rocks [in Denver]; I’ve just played on the same stage as Neil Young!’ - just incredible.”

Featured image: Ian Cheek Press / James


James' fifteenth album, Living in Extraordinary Times, is out now. Listen to it here.

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AUTHOR

Alexia Kirov

Music Editor @ Epigram 2017-19 / Photo credit: Catarina Rodrigues, Barbican 2018

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