Simple Minds – Interview 2018

Hard to believe, but these Glasgow legends have been going since 1977, forming from the ashes of punk band Johnny and The Self Abusers. Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill remain at the helm of this remarkable group who have stayed true to their origins and to the music they make. Refusing to join the celebrity/cabaret/retro circuits, they instead continue to release original music that is always heartfelt, and euphoric in tone and atmosphere. Walk Between Worlds is their 18th studio album, and their first one since 2014’s Big Music. Jim Kerr took some time out to chat with Brightonsfinest.

How you doing?
Very well. How you doing?

It’s a nice crisp, sunny morning here in Brighton.
I’m just back from a nice, dank walk in Glasgow!

Walk Between Worlds in your first album since 2014’s Big Music. Was there any different approach to making this one?
Big Music got a really good reaction from media and fans alike. Not just the positive things they said, but the language was good, you know. ‘Back to form’, and all this stuff. Likewise, the subsequent tour. We were very buoyed up with the whole thing. So, we’d built up a little head of steam. Then when our last tour rather conveniently finished in Scotland, it was one of those weeks, leading up to the Christmas holidays, and we didn’t feel like downing tools. So, Charlie and I… we work all the time. The album you’ve just heard (Walk Between Worlds), it’s never just the last eight ideas you’ve had. There’s ideas you go through. Some of them you’re like, “Yeah, that’s the direction we should be on”. Or, “That’s a good song, but not for this record”. Anyway, we took a few days to see what we had and started to think about what became Walk Between Worlds. We were really excited. We identified some ideas that gave us a new direction, leading on from Big Music. We knew that once we started to work on them, as albums do, halfway through they find their own direction. These other albums we’ve done, we see them as these things carved in stone. ‘That’s a big block’, and ‘that’s a big block’ but they’re not really; it’s all one story. It’s always flowing. On the second half of the record, using the orchestras and orchestrations, that was very much individual to this one. We hadn’t done that before.

How does a typical Simple Minds song come about? What are the foundation stones?
Somebody was saying to me yesterday how the music industry had changed beyond all comprehension from when we began. From the way people listen to music, to the way it’s sold. Ironically, the way we do it, fundamentally it has not changed. Let’s talk about Charlie. In this case it’s 80 to 90 per cent of his work. He’s a real musician. As he gets out of bed and has his first cup of coffee, he’s probably sitting at the piano or playing the guitar, meditating, and often he’ll get little ideas that he’ll then send me – we don’t even live in the same country anymore – but he’ll send to me MP3’s. Some of them very little sketches, some of them much more developed. I’m happy to say that nine times out of ten there will be something in it, that usually has me inspired. I find a melody, or a lyric, and try and match the atmosphere of the music. We’ll then play tennis, back and forward. Once we have about 12 ideas, we get together in a room and flesh them out. That’s really how we’ve done it since day one. Although there were no MP3’s on day one, just little cassettes, but essentially we work the same way as we always did.

Can you tell me about the song ‘Barrowland Star’?
People who know the rock scene, Barrowlands is probably one of the most famous venues around. The Barrowlands we grew up with here in Glasgow, was more infamous than famous. It’s an amazing old ballroom which opened in the early 50s. Our parents, aunts and uncles, maybe even our grandparents, all working class, went to Barrowlands on a Friday or Saturday night, probably to listen to big band jazz and then the early rock’n’roll. When we were growing up the venue was becoming dilapidated. There were incidences of violence. The place was closed down. In 1985, as Simple Minds, we got he chance to film a video in there. The police allowed it to be open again. Since then it has thrived. David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan have all played there. To us it’s like a temple. It’s like a church. The idea that people have gone for such a time to sing and dance and make merry. Occasionally, Simple Minds have written about our city, the spirit of our city. Not in an obvious way. ‘Waterfront’, about the river that runs through Glasgow. ‘Honest Town’ from our last record. In this case Barrowland had been calling out to me. I’ve got a little star in my writing room. When I say a star, the Ballroom has this rather cheesy 50s starlight ceiling, made of bakelite stars. Occasionally one of the little stars will fall off, and somebody gave one to me. It was calling out to me to be written about.

That’s where you start your tour. That must always be a special gig!?
Yes, but you’re all dying to get it over with because the pressure is immense.

I notice you’re playing some dates with The Pretenders in August…
Next week is really a showcase for the album. But really the live action begins in the summer. What can we say? We’re huge fans (of The Pretenders). To me, Chrissie is one of the true greats. She happens to be family as well in my case (Kerr was married to Chrissie Hyde, lead singer of The Pretenders, in 1984 – divorced in 1990 – and they have one daughter named Yasmin). We have kids, and grand-kids. I see her quite often, but I hadn’t seen her play live for quite a while. And they were on outrageous form. They’re amazing. KT Tunstall is also playing that tour. She played with us last year in Europe, something like 30 gigs. Charlie and I must have watched nearly all of them, she was that good.

Can you tell me about the title track, ‘Walk Between Worlds’?
In a nutshell it’s about empathy. It’s about this idea of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Can you feel what they’re feeling? Can you empathise? Can you feel for them when they’re going through something grave, some of the worst horrors imaginable? Can you emote? It’s this idea, do we have an empathy gene? Do we have it? If we do have it, how come some people seem to have it more than others? So, the song is about walking in someone else’s shoes.

How was the Abbey Road experience?
Funnily enough, we first went to Abbey Road for our first record, in 1979. I’d hardly ever been to London. I certainly hadn’t been to any studio. Our producer at the time, John Leckie, said in his wisdom, “Let’s scrim and save on the budget. We’ll use less studio time for parts of the record, but we’ll have a week in Abbey Road. You’ll love it. It will be mind blowing”, and all that. So, having hardly been anywhere we found ourselves in Abbey Road. Half of the guys loved it and excelled and were inspired. The other half, of which I was one, strangely enough I shrunk. I was absolutely overwhelmed. The Beatles have been here! Who needs us? You look around at all this iconic equipment. Every day that week it felt like I was going to an exam. But it was lovely to go back last year, and being obviously much more experienced and just enjoying the great place that it is, and to see and hear all those amazing classical musicians.

Dirty Old Town’, which is on the Deluxe version of the CD. It’s a live recording, an old Ewan MacColl song. Why did you do that one?
I don’t think we had ever played it live before that recording. It was quite emotional, and I’ll tell you why. We played in Manchester the night after the bombing at the (Manchester) Arena. We were in Liverpool that night, which is very close. Had a great gig, jumped on the bus, and somebody said there’s a bit of a hold up going into Manchester. Something has happened. We found ourselves entering Manchester a couple of hours after that tragedy had taken place. No one knew what was going to happen, but we got up the next day and we didn’t know if the gig was on, or even if we should play. You don’t know the protocol. But the promoter said the gig was on, and that the city wants to move ahead. “But, it’s up to you. No obligations. Half the audience might not come”. We asked our crew, we asked our musicians, and to a person everyone said, “Yeah, we want to play”. This is how we deal with everything. We just play. We’ve played for our own personal tragedies on the same night. It was a great night but, as you can imagine, it wasn’t an ordinary night, and at the soundcheck we said, “Let’s do something for Manchester. Let’s play this Ewan MacColl song that he had written for Manchester”. We did it a couple of times at the soundcheck, and then at the gig. The recording you hear is through our desk. The singer, Sarah Brown, makes it. She sounds like Mahalia Jackson on that.

It’s good to see you making headlines with your current battle with Justin Timberlake for the number one spot in the album charts!
If somebody told me ten years I’d be battling with Justin Timberlake I would never have believed them. But listen, somebody said to me the other day, “Chart positions and all that stuff. Do you care about that?” And I said, “Ummmmm… NO!!” He said “Liar!” and I said “You’re right” but, I said, “We’re in a different game”. And he said, “What do you mean you’re in a different game? What different game is this?” And I said, “We’re in the game of trying to be fucking great. We want to make great records, and play great shows.” We’ll get what we’re gonna get and we’ll be happy.

Jeff Hemmings