James Frontman Tim Booth Reflects on Manchester's Resilience In the Face of Tragedy

Jonathan Short/Invision/AP
Tim Booth from British band James performs at the V Festival on Aug. 17, 2013 in Chelmsford, England. 

Manchester-based alternative rock band James crossed over from the indie charts to the top 40 in the early ‘90s, becoming one of the U.K.’s biggest bands as part of the country’s “Madchester” explosion. Frontman Tim Booth reflects on the city that made James, and the “hard-as-nails” identity that will help it survive this week’s Manchester Arena tragedy.

Manchester affects me deeply. We must have played Manchester Arena 10 times; we must be one of the bands who played there the most. And it could’ve been us, it could’ve been our fans. You feel connected when it’s your hometown and places you know and people you know who were there. I know the security, I know people who work there, I know the promoters. It’s got incredible memories for us.

The city [molded] James in many ways. At first, we weren’t selling music -- not enough to be interesting -- but our audiences were in Manchester, and our audiences were growing. The city had such a vibrant music scene, and the bands looked after each other. It was a really rough city in the ’70s and ’80s -- just as the Joy Division movie by Anton Corbijn [Control] depicts. But there’s always a unity in cities like that.

For a couple of years, I lived in [the inner-city area] Hulme, which at the time had the highest crime rate in the country. It was virtually “free” -- lots of people broke into flats and just took them over, because nobody really wanted to live there. You had to prove yourself; you got burgled a few times, you got your car broken into a few times. You just got on with it.

So it seemed to breed musicians -- difficult musicians, who had a bit of a chip on their shoulder because they weren’t in London. London bands got all the attention. Record companies were all in London, the money was all in London. So if you were in a London band, you often got signed really quickly. And it’s not healthy to get signed quickly. In Manchester, you were given a lot longer to develop your own identity, your own skill.

We didn’t want to be part of a Manchester scene, because like all Manchester bands, we were arrogant enough to think we were separate from it. But The Fall gave us a support slot, and then New Order took us on tour and were very generous and kind. And then when it came to be our turn to be the big band, we took Inspiral Carpets on tour, and The Stone Roses opened for us, and then we took Happy Mondays on tour before they became big.

The city is as hard as nails. It survived the war, it survived [everything]. [After] World War II, there were the Irish Republican Army bombings; the IRA usually gave warnings so that people weren’t killed. But Manchester had a huge bomb go off when I was there in the city, from the IRA. And we would get on with it.

All of the cities in the United Kingdom -- especially the northern cities -- have a very strong sense of identity. It’s a bit like Texas or Detroit. You get people who are very grounded in their hearts and very grounded in their roots.

There will be a grief process, but there will be some amazing acts of love and solidarity and unity that will come from it. There will be very devastated people, but there’s a real sense that people will look after each other. Manchester always had this feeling of community. And of course, it will survive.    

As told to Andrew Unterberger.

This article originally appeared in the June 3 issue of Billboard.