Meet: Saul Davies of Manchester band James.

Ian Mc Donnell

With James set to release their 40th anniversary double album of greatest hits reimagined with a full orchestra & choir this June and head out on the road for a run of headline shows, starting at the end of April and running through till mid May, Then playing a number of UK summer festival dates, including one at Irelands Forest Fest as of yet their only Irish show this year.
Abigael Paquet got to sit down and chat with band member Saul Davies.

Words Abigael Paquet: Photos Ian Mc Donnell – Lewis Knaggs.

Abby: So your new album is coming out soon? Could you tell us a little bit about it ? And also, where did the idea of working with an orchestra come from ?

Saul: Yeah, well we did work with an orchestra once before. We did a tour. We didn’t record it, or film it, or anything. But we did it, in 2011, I think. And at the time we thought it was a one off kind of thing. But, we got to our 40th year and and kind of thought: well, that’s one of the things that we could do during this year, like just to celebrate with our kind of our hardcore fans. We thought that was an appropriate thing to do. Joe (Dell) put some arrangements together. And then, in the autumn last year, we got together in Manchester to rehearse. And then we recorded actually. And so, that album will come out at the back end of the tour, which we’re about to start in the next week or so. So that’s how it came about. And, the record is kind of a real mixture of stuff – some songs that people who know the band would know us for, the kind of hits and such; and then some lesser known songs. And I don’t know if you’ve heard it, if you were sent a copy of it, but it’s a very beautiful piece of work. 

Abby: I actually have, it was very nice. I did listen to a good few songs, and it was very nice. I really enjoyed it !

Saul: Cool !

Abby: And so, how do you feel about this album coming out? Are you excited, anxious ? Scared ? 

Saul: No, well, the thing is, I think often times when bands do … You know, they might want to rework that material or whatever, I’m always a bit sceptical about it myself. I was a little bit worried that we might below it, or it might seem a bit self indulgent or whatever, but actually, the way that it’s turned out, I actually really like it. And I think it’s a very legitimate way for us to present ourselves. Like, we’re quiet as a band. The nine of us as musicians, you know, we’re pretty ragged, right ? We’re typically British, kind of splashy and not very good really, and don’t really rehearse or, you know … but I know that we write some great songs and I know that it will make a great noise together. We have moments of coherence [laughs].
But what I really liked about this is, sometimes things can get a bit wrong with some bands … like, the orchestra and the choirs, they’re all really highly trained or they really know what they’re doing. And I quite liked the juxtaposition of these very precise musicians with those lot, kind of scrabbling around there. So, I don’t think it sounds too prissy. And I don’t think it sounds too, you know, kind of self indulgent. And I like it. I’m actually really proud of that. And I think it adds really nicely to, you know,  our body of work. And when the band is no more, it will stand as a testament to something that we did. I mean, these things can just go horribly wrong, you know what I mean ? I think our music lends itself to it. It’s very heartfelt, so the emotion you get from some of those other instruments when they join you, like strings and stuff, by people who know what they’re doing … it’s pretty cool !

Abby: It was very, very good. I mean, I know your big songs, you know, I wouldn’t have heard everything. But listening to that, I really enjoyed it, and I’m more into aggressive music, let’s say.

Saul: But you know what’s really interesting, right ? I mean, I’ve done quite a few of these interviews and talked to quite a few people about it, and I just came off the phone with this guy who’s writing University in Sheffield, you know, young kid. And it’s really interesting how almost everybody – regardless of what people might be quite into, like you’re saying they’re into more aggressive stuff or whatever, or age or whatever it is … And I can tell that when people say: “oh, I really like it” that, you know, they kind of mean it. Like, they’re not just saying it, otherwise they wouldn’t say anything [laughs]. And it’s really interesting how that’s happening. So, I find that really heartening because, you know, there’s a lot against a band that’s been going for 40 years, right ? Some people just have a problem with the fact that you exist because you’re old, don’t like old stuff, like whatever … They might have preconceptions about what you sound like. “I don’t like this because I don’t like how they sound, even though this sounds different”, there’s lots of reasons why we would not like something. There’s so much stuff to get your hands on these days, like there’s so much stuff out there and we got access to all of it, all the time ! So, to cut through all of that noise, it’s very, very, very, very, very hard. Right ? So, for anybody to say anything nice about anything that you do is a fucking miracle.
But you know, when you’ve been around for four years, and you’ve done 16/17 albums, people even begrudgingly will kind of say: “Oh, fucking hell ! Yeah, well done !” You know, I mean, that’s not bad ! There’s not that many of us around, you know. I mean, I’ve lasted this long, we can do another 10 years, and we’re up there with the stones and all the rest of it.

Abby: Hell yeah, just keep going until you can’t or don’t want to do it anymore !

Saul: Yeah, and I think some of it is about how, like …I think you have to kind of grow older gracefully as well, you know what I mean ? Yet at the same time, like, you should still be fucking angry and you should rage against the dying of the light, you fuckers ! You know what I mean ?  Just because you’re old doesn’t mean that you don’t have it like, you know, we’ve seen stuff. We’ve been through generations. We’ve seen stuff politically. We’ve seen stuff socially, economically, musically, artistically, creatively. We fucking done it all ! My generation is the one generation that had its foot in the analog world pre-internet and it’s one or the other in the digital world. We’re the only people on the planet; this is our generation that knows what it was like pre-internet. Do you know I mean, like, we have a voice, we have some thoughts. I’m not saying me or the band, but our generation, right ? People in their 50s and their 60s, you know, we are still using our voice right.

Abby: You also recently announced a tour. How are you feeling about that ? Are you looking forward to it or are you kind of nervous about it ?

Saul: No, not at all nervous about it no, very much looking forward to it ! We’ve done a lot of the donkey work, soo now it’s really just getting out on the stage and presenting it. I mean, there’s nervousness in relation to having a lot of people on some quite small stages … The tour is 15 dates, it’s quite a lot of dates, but the venues are quite small. And it has been mad, really, because the whole tour sold out in an afternoon. And we realised we could probably have played some bigger places, but we weren’t sure about that. And it was too late [laughs]. It’s amazing to play those when you know those theatres with like, 2000 people in them. They’re amazing because then we can see you and you can see everybody else. 

Abby: A bit more intimate, yeah.

Saul: Yeah, very much so. The only problem we’ve got is the logistics of getting, like, 45 musicians on the stage. Right ? Some of them aren’t that big … We’ll make it work. I mean no, I don’t think there’s nervousness, I think we’re in really good form. And it’s genuinely a pleasure to go and take these arrangements out to people because I feel we’ve done a really good job. 
You know, there are moments throughout a career.
For any career in the creative, in the arts, and the creative industries – whatever there are – there’s only maybe going to be a few moments in your career where you can say: “Oh, that was a moment. !” Like, you have moments where you say : “fuck ! We went on tour with Neil Young for 25 gigs, like, Wow !”
This summer we’re gonna go and play at the Acropolis in Athens, with the orchestra and the choir. Can you imagine ?! We’re gonna get to play at the fucking Acropolis ! It’s insane ! And these things are moments that define your career, you know ? When you’re lying on your deathbed, you know, if you have to name your top five moments of your career, then maybe … You know, then it’s about creating moments, not only for the audience, but for yourself as a band, you know. Things that challenge you, things where you feel like you’ve done good work, things where you feel there’s a potential for failure; because for it to work, there’s got to be the potential for failure.

Abby: You’re actually also set to headline at the Forest Fest in the Emo village in Co. Laois, here in Ireland this summer. Could you tell us a bit about what the Irish fans could expect ?

Saul: Well, yeah, I suppose with most of the festival dates that we’re doing this summer, other than the show in Athens and Latitude where we’re playing on the main stage with the orchestra and the choir, which has made me know:  to take all of that into the festival is almost impossible, right ? So, the show in Ireland will be very much like a rock and roll show. Exactly what we’re going to play, I don’t know. It will be no doubt a smattering of songs that people know, as for festivals always demand that you play some stuff that people know of course, then we’ll be some catalogs because, you know, we’ll have done this tour with the orchestra and that will have reawakened us and rekindle our interest in some of the catalog songs that we’ve got. So, who knows, maybe we’re gonna want to do those songs through, but it’ll be a mixed bag.
We know what we have to do when we’re playing a festival, you know, you have to go and give everything that you have, you know … You’re headlining a festival, everybody there has paid fucking shitloads of money to be there. the weather is always shite – it doesn’t matter what anybody says, it’s always fucking shite.

Abby: Especially here [laughs].

Saul: Exactly [laughs]. But you’ve got to give it to people. I mean, we don’t have a huge audience in Ireland, so I always cherish every single fucking opportunity that we get to go and play. Because I think that the band, you know, we’re like – and I don’t mean this in any kind of cliched way at all ! I mean, I live in the Northwest coast of Scotland, right in the middle of nowhere. And I have done for many years, so … I know there are massive cultural differences between Ireland and the West coast of Scotland. Nevertheless, there are some shared as well. The love of drinking, for example. [laughs]
I’m teetotaled, so I can say this completely without any problems [laughs] I’ve been teetotaled for 15 years.
In fact, one of the reasons I ended up teetotaled was, well, it put me on a path. I had one mental mental night. Do you know a place called Roundstone ?

Abby: I think so. 

Saul: On the west coast of Ireland. Well, it’s fucking mental. Right ? Don’t go there if you want to remain sane. We went in the late 90s to make a video for a song called Runaground, which is a beautiful song and we were told: “they want to take you to Roundstone because they do this thing on the beach with the horses , and we’re going to film you there.” And we were like: “yeah, whatever.” We didn’t know where we were going or what we were going to do, it was just insane. And I remember, as we’re all getting dressed up, like fucking second rate CNA kind of models, in this pub.
And then getting shoved down to this windswept freezing beach to be filmed shivering, right, while these people read the preposterous event. What was amazing was the pub, right ? And the Guinness and the people; and everything just went mad. Now I remember, at about 5am, coming up with the idea that Johan Cruyff, who was my hero – a Dutch footballer – should produce our next album [laughs].
And this struck me in later years, I tried to persuade our manager Peter Raju who was there to try to keep us all together. 
The guy at the bar said: “you can just sleep in the booth, it’s alright, you don’t need to go to your room, you can just sleep in the bar.” So I went to sleep and woke up in the bar and had scribbled down these notes. And Pete was standing over and he was like : “What the fuck ?! You fucking been here all night ?!” And I was like: “yeah, it’s fine. I’m fine.” Then he was like: “No, you’re not !” and I went: “hold on, hold on, I’ve got a brilliant idea ! Johan Cruyff should produce our next album !” And he was like: “you’re an idiot.”
Apparently though that night, I don’t really remember this, I’d wandered around to a church that was around the corner from this pub. And I’ve been banging on the door of the church looking for absolution.
And this this bloke was walking his dog. And he goes, and he says something to me like: “it’s closed, he’s not in.” and I was like: “what, God ?!” [laughs] And he found this funny anyway and helped me get back to the pub, so I continued drinking. And I think that was one of the moments where I thought: “I should stop drinking, this isn’t very good.” Since then I’ve had 15/16 years of sobriety. But anyway, a few years ago, Johan Cruyff died. And so I never got my album.
Yeah, well.
And specifically, the reason why I thought you’re in Cruyff, other than maybe my hero, was because he invented this thing called Total Football, right ? And the whole idea of Total Football was that any player on the pitch could change positions with any other player. So, I thought, there’s fucking loads of us in our band, we should just change instruments all the time ! Like, it will be like, total museos [musicians] rather than total football. So there was
some sense in my thinking, right ? It’s not just totally random.

Abby: Did you end up doing it ?

Saul: No, of course we fucking didn’t ! Trying to explain this to everybody was impossible. But we were lucky anyway during that period as we got to make five records with Brian Eno who was producing our records. And he was like, another inventor of stuff so we were already blessed with a master. 

Abby: Well that was a good story ! And so, how do you feel about being the headliner of the opening night for that festival [Forest Fest] ?

Saul: Great ! Everybody will be coming along the first night. It’s like in a way it’s the best night to play probably because of all that enthusiasm for the event. And even if the weather is shite, it’s a bit like: “yeah, but let’s go for it !” right  ? Tops off. I mean, it’s really cool that we’re getting to go and play at least one show during our 40th.

Abby: Well, that’s pretty cool. I didn’t even know there was an emo village [laughs].

Saul: I don’t know what we’re stumbling into [laughs] we’ll see !

Abby: So, you’ve obviously played in many places, but is there a venue or country that you’d love to play ? Or play again ?

Saul: Yeah, we have been really lucky with everywhere we got to play really, but I guess I’d love to go back to Japan. I mean, we’re lucky we got there at all, not everybody gets to go to Japan. But there’s so much undiscovered places. I’d love to go and do a gig in a hole in Greenland or Iceland or something like that. 
Japan has gotten a special allure, I’ll never forget my time. You know, it wasn’t like going to another country, it was like going to another planet. It was probably in 1993/94. Endlessly fascinated by the first time I did see a fucking sushi vending machine ! And I remember feeling like an alien, you know, feeling like … this is what it’s like when you are the minority. Everybody’s staring at you and they make no apology for it. 

(Above photo credit Ian Mc Donnell)

Abby: Would you like to tell us about your journey with making music ? Like, was it something you always wanted to do?

Saul: Well, I was playing music from about the age of eight. I was I was given a violin and had some lessons at school in Scotland. I was getting these lessons once a week, that was amazing. And then I started playing fiddle rather than violin and such. But then I played in the orchestra for a bit. And while I was in school, I was in the youth orchestra and the leader of the youth orchestra in Sterling in central Scotland. And then I met this guy, Adrian, who is now the other guitar player in James and he was like: “we need go busking.” So we could have money to buy weed or whatever. And he said: “you need to learn to play guitar !” In a week, he taught me to play guitar, and then he would play cello and I would play violin, guitar, whatever, and we go on the street and got money. I mean, I enjoyed, I love playing music with Adrian … I love music, like I was brought up in a household that had amazing record collections and new records coming into our house, even in the wilderness of Scotland. You know, every few weeks, we’ve got a little parcel from America and get some albums on import.
When I was five, my parents took me to the
Isle of Wight Festival, and I don’t remember a lot of it but I know I saw Hendrix and I saw the Doors …  So all of that stuff has an impact on you, but I never thought it would be my living. 
And then, one night in Manchester, I just got invited up onto the stage because they were doing like a player’s night and asking people to come up and play.
Played a bit of violin on the stage, and James and Larry were there at the time and said: “come in, jam with us.” So the next day I went and jammed and when they asked me to join the band, and I was like: “fuck, this is a bit mad !”
By then I had done kind of university thing and all that stuff … I was an apprentice Potter [laughs] I was making ceramics. But I ended up in James, and then 10/12 days later I was on tour with this band. And I was like: “aaaaah, this is mental !” I remember, we played at the free trade hall in Manchester and I think three of the new order had just released Technique – which is one of the greatest records ever made in my opinion – and they were there in the front row ! And I looked over at the mixing desk on stage and fucking Morrissey was standing there. And I was like: “wow, this is mad !” Then I suddenly went: “hang on a minute, this band is actually something, isn’t it ?” [laughs] But I’m standing on stage and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here. But you know, what is it for me ? 34 years later ? 

Abby: That’s crazy ! That worked out well for you ! [laughs]

Saul: Yeah, not bad, eh ? [laughs]

Abby: Yeah. And so if you weren’t a musician then what do you think you would’ve been? 

Saul: I don’t know, you know, God … I always wanted to be a footballer, but I was shit, I was too small. Well, I wasn’t “shit”, I was just too small. I honestly don’t know. I don’t know which way the wind would’ve blown me. I think it would’ve been something in the creative arts, probably, like I would probably the worst shit. So … I would’ve ended up being the world’s worst standup comedian !

Abby: [laughs]

Saul: That was pretty funny [laughs]

Abby: It was, it was. 

Saul: Oh, well I’m not the world’s worst, shit ! Hang on a minute, there’s a flow in the plan:  I’m too funny ! [laughs]

Abby: What is your favourite song or the most meaningful song out of all the ones you have released ?

Saul: Oof. Bands always say: “oh, some unknown track”, trying to be cool … But actually, I’ll say this: the best known song we have  – like in Ireland and Britain or whatever, not across the world – would probably be Laid. But Sit Down is probably the most known of our songs. And, here’s the thing about that song, it’s endured and the lyric is fucking incredible.  And sometimes there’s a tendency for bands to deny why the most successful songs are in fact so successful, right ? But that song has got a lyrical content, which is just genius and it means as much now as it ever did. But there’s a song that’s really hidden in our catalog and I kind of hoped we would do it with the orchestra. That didn’t happen, but we do occasionally play it. It’s a song called All Good Boys and it’s a really simple song and it’s about how sons follow their father’s footsteps.
And it’s really about abuse, not deliberate abuse, but about how we pass on our fears and traumas to the next generation, you know. It’s a fucking hardcore tune, right ? And it’s almost dressed up as a little folk song with its three simple acoustic guitar chords and little drums and stuff, so it’s very unassuming. I see what it does to a room when we play it, and people momentarily stop and think, and they appraise maybe their relationship with their own kids or with their own parents or whatever. And it’s really something else actually.

(Above photos credit Lewis Knaggs)

Abby: Now, this is a question that you probably don’t get asked a lot. Are there any questions that you wish journalists would ask you but never or rarely do ?

Saul: Mhh… Well, I wish more people would ask me what I think about Brexit [laughs].

Abby: [laughs] what do you think about Brexit then ? 

Saul: So, after Brexit took place, we were doing a gig in the borders, maybe just into Northern England; just like really South Scotland, you know, in a festival. And I was wearing my ‘fuck Brexit’ t-shirt which I’d hand painted. And, um, there was this guy – big beery Northern English in front of me, having to go at me. They thought they were being funny, but they were really pissed. So, it was getting a bit abusive. And so, I started having a go at them down the mic about Brexit and all the rest of it. And, I almost got done for a hate crime for my T-shirt. Imagine ! The police came up to me after the gig and were like: “uh, that T-shirt might actually constitute a hate crime” ‘cause it said ‘fuck Brexit’. And I was like: “you are fucking joking me, right ?! A totalitarian state is it ?” And then he goes: “Yeah it is, actually !” You know, I wouldn’t wanna offend anybody that decided that it was a good idea to go and stick up a wall to our nearest and dearest neighbours, you know what I mean ? But you’ve really got to question the motivations of a country actually,, and a culture, and a society that thinks that it’s a good idea. First of all, that can be taken in by those fuckers that manipulated the whole thing. So, you’ve got to question our sanity and our collective level of intelligence almost, right ? And then you’ve got to ask very serious questions about the cultural morality that you’re seeing unfolding, where you blame other people for everything that you know, the perceived ills,  and you take it out on people who are quite vulnerable, you know …  People who are immigrants, for example, You know, like: “let’s take it out on them ‘cause they don’t have a voice. Let’s fuck them.” 
I suppose I became very political throughout all this because because I’m European. I do genuinely wish that there was a bigger and more open debate in our country about what it’s doing, you know ? But it’s not there yet. It’s not there on the cards yet, and it won’t be for a while. 

Abby: Well that was an interesting question to ask you. Now, my last question is: what was your worst moment on stage, if you ever had one?

Saul: Um, yeah, I’ve had one.  I think it was in Switzerland. We were playing a gig, the Montreux Jazz Festival, which isn’t just jazz. And I went momentarily insane. And I got my guitar and I started trying to smash it … Um, so I was banging it off the stage, up and down, banging “bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang” the fucking thing. And I was kind of screaming at it, and it didn’t even have a dent ! And I was like: “fucking hell, they make these build quality on these GNL guitars, it’s amazing !” [laughs] And that was it. That was the worst. Like, I couldn’t even get it together to smash my guitar. I was like: “oh, this is gonna be  one of the iconic moments of this festival”, me smashing up my guitar, be like Hendrix setting fire pits and playing it with his teeth and I’m just bashing it up and down and then, you know, nothing’s happening. Uh, anyway, nevermind. 

Abby: [laughs] Oh, that must’ve been funny for other people to see !

Saul: Oh, the rest of the band were like: “you fucking idiot. What were you doing ?!” And I was like: “oh, nothing. No, no, nothing. I don’t know what happened. Nothing to see here.” 


JAMES are: Tim Booth, Jim Glennie, Saul Davies, Adrian Oxaal, David Baynton-Power, Mark Hunter, Andy Diagram, Chloe Alper and Deborah Knox-Hewson.


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