It’s been a long and hedonistic journey for the Halifax-born ‘fat white duke’, (his words not ours), having first fell head over heels in love with music in 1979 at a Stiff Little Fingers gig.
By the mid-eighties he found himself drawn to London’s burgeoning indie movement like a moth to flame. A fully-fledged career in the business was to follow, including a spell in shoegaze pioneers Loop, even though he couldn’t play guitar and wasn’t that bothered about learning.
After a load of love from John Peel and the national press, he left Loop and famously turned down an offer from the Jesus and Mary Chain – the stage was no longer for him.
Instead, James landed in the lap of label legends Geoff Travis and Jeanette Lee, learning the ropes at Rough Trade over several successful years.
Now the proprietor of the newly revitalised 1965 Records, he’s built up a roster of innovative and massively diverse acts, including Lusts, Black Peaches, Man & the Echo and Dave McCabe & the Ramifications.
We spent some time with James at the AIM Awards aftershow party to shoot the breeze and sink a few. He chatted on about the last 30 years of his life, giving us a riveting insight into the mechanics of music and the bands that have shaped British indie over the decades...
Tell us about your time in Loop…
I was a kid. We met at my house in 1987 and we had a party. My mate Jeff Barrett, who had this label called Head Records and who now does Heavenly, said he had a psychedelic band for me to meet.
There were only about 20 of us there, sat round smoking spliffs and this bloke was talking to me about The Stooges, the 13th Floor Elevators, Chocolate Watch Band… At the time, not a lot of people knew about this stuff. He said he needed a guitar player for his band and told me I should do it. I’d never picked up a guitar in my life. We rehearsed on the Friday and had a gig on the Saturday, supporting Biff Bang Pow!, Alan McGee’s band. It was at a place called The Black Horse in Camden. It was mental. Someone chucked a glass at Alan – there was a bit of a kerfuffle.
About a week later we were interviewed by Sounds, and three weeks after I was in the mag. There was a picture of me, in a band, in Sounds. I had to pinch myself. I couldn’t believe it was real.
I was talking to someone a couple of weeks ago and I said, ‘never stop pinching yourself’. I constantly pinch myself. It was my 50th birthday a few months ago and I had Bobby Gillespie DJing. I’ve known Bobby for 25, 30 years, he’s a good friend so I asked him to play and thought nothing of it. Then all of a sudden I thought, ‘fucking hell! Bobby Gillespie is DJing at my birthday party. How the fuck has that happened?’ And then Kim Gordon turned up. I was pinching myself. Whatever you do, if you stop pinching yourself, then it’s fucked. It’s over.
It’s all bullshit. I remember when I first joined Loop I didn’t know how to play guitar so for the first gig I had my back to the audience. I was leaning down and I had three chords to play. I looked great! I was 21, really skinny, black leather trousers and black leather jacket. I had my back to the audience and was playing these three chords. I was looking down at my shoes because I was nervous. All of a sudden this shoegazey thing started happening – all these kids from the Home Counties who were influenced by Spacemen 3, Loop, whatever. At the time, we joked about it, the others in the band said I’d invented shoegaze because I’d been staring at the floor through most of the gig. It was an amazing time, we were all innocent about it. There was no internet. We just did it.
What do you think about indie these days?
You’re asking me and I’m a 50 year old man. I shouldn’t know! I’m still signing bands but I’m hanging on the coattails of a lot of things I did in the past. In reality, I shouldn’t know what’s going on – but saying that, there’s a lot of great music going on right now.
Yeh, obviously. We’ve all fucked up. When I joined Loop and couldn’t play guitar, I didn’t even pick one up between a rehearsal and a gig. Then, when I left Loop/got kicked out because I couldn’t be arsed to learn, the Mary Chain called me up and asked me to join. I said no because I couldn’t play. Do I regret that, no I don’t, because, whatever. I was very lazy, but of course I was – I was a 21, 22 year old kid in London, wearing leather trousers and taking speed. I was in a band, I was in magazines, I was getting played on the radio – I didn’t give a fuck. Was it arrogance? I don’t think so. I didn’t know.
Weird enough, my wife asked me the other night if there was anything I ever regretted, and the one thing was that I didn’t learn to play guitar when I was in a band. Once I started being in music papers and doing John Peel sessions I was living the dream. I blagged it and my one regret is, if I learned it, maybe I could’ve done something good with that. But, whatever. I think I’ve done alright since then so it’s fine.
Has your music taste changed much over the years? The stuff you’re championing now is very different to the older stuff you were involved in…
Yes, but it’s all psychedelic. When I say psychedelic, I don’t mean it in the traditional sense, like the Elevators or the Nuggets stuff. I have a tag line – ‘unlock your mind’. For me, that’s how I live my life. It doesn’t matter who, what or where. I could come to a night like this – an awards ceremony for independent records – and you know as well as I do that 98 percent of those records I fucking hate. For me, music has got to be psychedelic – it’s got to make me think about it. John Coltrane is psychedelic. But when you’ve got a band with the right haircuts and their shirts buttoned up, who’re doing the right chord progressions – are they psychedelic? Not really. Psychedelia is a state of mind. It makes me who I am.
How’s life treating you at the moment?
I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. It’s because I know. When I was a kid, I was arrogant, like all kids should be - like mine are. They’re wankers, but they’re brilliant, and they’re mine. I’m very happy with the friends I have, I’m happy that people like you want to talk to me. I get stopped on the street sometimes, maybe about The Libertines or The Strokes or whatever. That blows my mind. It’s lovely.
Indie music these days is big business. How do you feel about that?
It freaks me out. These are people who, 12 years ago, wouldn’t have given a fuck about the bands they like now. But that’s how it happens, isn’t it?
In your experience, how has the business side changed?
The business side of it has always been fucked. Business is just fucked.
Where do the artists fit into that? How can they make their way?
Well, they don’t make their way, do they? They’ve just got to make great records for people like us. People like me or Jeff Barrett put out records, you buy it, you love it, that’s it.
It’s all about opening your mind. It’s about not accepting the way you think things are or what you’ve been taught. Don’t worry about record sales and all of that – just concentrate on the music.
Where do you see your place in the bigger picture?
All I really care about is that I’ve had a really good run at it and I’ve worked with some really great bands who’ve changed people’s lives.
You’re known for spotting great talent. What is it that tells you you’ve found something amazing? Is it the hairs on the back of your neck, or something else?
It’s whatever gets me going. It’s got to have a beating heart. It’s got to be something beautiful. If I love it, other people will, because I’m not weird! I listen to The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I don’t sit and listen to Test Dept and Throbbing Gristle all day long. I like great music.
You can’t put it into words. A great record or a great song is something that’s going to affect how you’re going to be for the next few hours of your life. Today I’ve had a shitty day at work but on the way here I listened to some tunes I love and it changed my mood. Music gets you somewhere, it changes you, it helps you.
You’ve worked with a fair few bands who’ve been on the up. What’s your advice for young’uns starting out?
Don’t give a fucking monkeys about what anyone says about you. You get little bands coming down to London to meet A&R people and I want to tell them, ‘don’t give a fuck’. Just be yourself, and if you’re good enough, you’re good enough. Don’t try to be X or Y, don’t try to be anything but yourself. It’s not just a band thing, it’s a life thing.
Everyone says the music industry is a relationship business – do you agree? Is it about greasing palms?
I don’t think so, I think that’s too lazy. Just get on it. I might meet a band but not like them, it doesn’t matter. It’s about how you feel when you walk out of that gig. Are you buzzing? That’s what it’s all about.
Is there anyone you really wish you’d signed, but didn’t?
Yeh, The Coral. I think they’re one of the greatest bands in the world and I don’t think they’ve never achieved what they should’ve done. I’m not saying I could’ve done, but I think I’d have had a damn good go at it. I think they’re amazing.
What’s happening at 1965 – who have you signed?
Loads of great bands. Obviously. What they’ve all got is a belief. They’re all fucking having it. Don’t play to try to get on an Xfm playlist, just do what you do. Don’t try to do things for other people. When I sign a band, I tell them to be themselves. It may not sell records, but be yourself. Somebody has given me money to run a record label at 50 years old – not a lot of money – but some. It’s about belief. It’s a punk rock belief.
Tell us about The Libertines?
They were the best band I ever worked with. They were amazing people, creatively, everything.
Where did it go wrong?
You know where it went wrong, we all know where it went wrong, and I was there as it was happening. When I’m sat in my bungalow somewhere in 20 years’ time, I’ll look back on The Libertines and think, ‘fucking hell!’
What do you think they did for British music?
At the time, nothing. In retrospect, everything.
What made them so great?
I don’t know. It’s beautiful. I believe in it.
What have you learned about the industry after all these years?
Hahahaha don’t do it! I don’t know, it’s full of fucking idiots, innit? The industry has helped me and hindered me too.
Why have you stuck it out so long?
Cos I’ve still got a beating heart. I’m still excited by it.