James: 'No song is brought into the world 20 years old and huge, they're brought into the world as a nonentity'

James: 'We're still looking for a decent tune!'

Ahead of their Summer Sessions gig in Edinburgh, Saul Davies and Jim Glennie talk about being fifteen albums in and still creating extraordinary alternative pop-rock

It's March 2019 and James are playing Edinburgh's Usher Hall, with one difference from their usual set – a local choir are going to be performing alongside them in the venue's organ gallery, and extra rehearsal and soundcheck is necessary. As a result, our interview will have to be shorter than intended, because the choir are starting to set up downstairs.

'It's Brian Eno's daughter who's in it, she lives here,' says the band's multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies in pretend indignation. 'He suggested, "since you're in Edinburgh why don't you get them along?" Sixteen hours later, here we are!' Alongside him in the nondescript and disused room chosen for our interview is bass guitarist Jim Glennie. 'It's been chaos, but it'll be amazing,' he says cheerfully. Fifteen albums and the best part of four decades into their career, James are the level of band who get Brian Eno calling them up asking for favours.

Both members of James since the 1980s (Glennie and singer Tim Booth are the only remaining founder members, having been in the band since 1982), the pair share the same intuitive sense of humour, but they couldn't be a greater contrast; Glennie softly spoken and polite, like a mindful English teacher, and Davies animated and full of opinions. When we spoke, Brexit was meant to be only days from happening, and the latter's fury at the whole situation – his son is European – is approaching incandescence.

James are unusual in that they aren't just a band from their era who are still together and heading out on the road, but they're one which continues to prolifically write and record material which searches for new sounds and new things to say. 'It's because we don't have any good early material,' says Davies, in what might be called the James deadpan. 'We're still looking for a decent tune!'

Last year's 15th album was named Living in Extraordinary Times, and the title told the story of what it was about. 'Tim lives in the States, so he's well-versed in all the Trump stuff,' says Glennie. 'He didn't want the album to be about Trump, there are two songs that are specifically, but the rest he consciously tried to stop himself – he said, "the man doesn't deserve to have an album dedicated to him!"'

'There are three of us who do the music,' says Davies. 'We jam together in a room with Tim's words and melodies, and flesh them out into the beginnings of songs, and I find that good lyrics are always open to interpretation, even if it seems obvious what they're about. I like the fact you can put different interpretations on them, that even in the band there are different ideas of what they're about.'

Unlike Booth, both Glennie and Davies have chosen to make the Scottish Highlands their home, the former near Ullapool and the latter near Gairloch; they say childhood holidays were an inspiration, although Davies was partly brought up in Scotland.

'The Highlands might be nice if you visit from Italy or do a fly-drive from London, but life is pretty hard there,' says Davies. 'The economy isn't great, the weather is worse, but we're part of a movement who have come to the Highlands and even in our mid-50s brought new energy. The Highlands have historically been an amazing melting pot of people, but pretty viciously depopulated over generations. Maybe that trend is starting to reverse – people think, what an amazing place to bring up your kids.'

With the obvious geographical differences, then, what keeps the band working so hard on new material when they could rely on old hits? 'We're not just a pop act any more,' says Davies, simply. 'I like the way a novelist or painter creates work without constantly referencing the past. Pop music is the only artwork which seems tied to the past by a thing called a "hit", but I love bands like Sigur Rós or Mogwai, who just come out with the latest thing they've done because that's what they do.'

'Songs aren't born well-known,' says Glennie, comparing their new music to hits like 'Sit Down', 'Laid', 'Come Home' and 'Sometimes'. 'Imagine Simon and Garfunkel played "Bridge Over Troubled Water" for the first time and you said, "fuck this, I'm off to the bar" and missed it. No song is brought into the world 20 years old and huge, they're brought into the world as a nonentity.'

James play Summer Sessions, Princes Street Gardens, 15 Aug, 6pm, £53–£94.

Edinburgh Summer Sessions

Annual concert series taking place in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle at the Princes Garden's Ross Bandstand. 2019 line-up includes Florence + The Machine, Primal Scream and Johnny Marr, CHVRCHES and James.