REFLECTION AND FRESH DIRECTIONS
A CONVERSATION WITH JIM KERR OF SIMPLE MINDS
On February 2, BMG released Walk Between Worlds, Simple Minds’s first album of new material since 2014’s Big Music, which MOJO Magazine declared ‘their best album in 30 years.’ Walk Between Worlds was produced by Simple Minds with Andy Wright and Gavin Goldberg, both of whom worked on Big Music. With its eight tracks rocketing past in 42 minutes, it is a relatively concise affair. It is also an album of two distinct sides, very much the old-school album format that singer Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill grew up with as music fans. Side one tracks such as “Summer” and “The Signal And The Noise” revisit the glassy guitars and new wave dance grooves of the post-punk era, and the second half explores more cinematic sounds, with the title track and “Barrowland Star” both featuring dramatic orchestrations recorded at Abbey Road. I had the opportunity after having an advance album listen to explore its creative path with frontman of the band, Jim Kerr.
Intrigued initially by my accent Jim explored his memories of playing shows in North Ireland in troubled political times. Returning to the album itself, I asked Jim if he agreed with MOJO’s high praise. He stated that he did think it was ‘full of quality.’ Jim shared that the band had really thrown themselves into and engaged with its creation. He explored the band’s inception when it was easier for the members to give everything to the band, as back then it was the only thing in their lives. 30 years later, it had become much more difficult to retain that level of personal commitment as they now had other things in their lives, and they had also individually been through the mill. Their strong work ethic for this release resulted in them creating over 30 songs, and they didn’t ‘just go with the first eight songs we came up with.’ Instead they whittled it down and tried to get something very focused. I noted that the deluxe album version also included a couple of high-quality new songs in addition to a live cover. I was therefore keen to ascertain how the band actually decided on which tracks should go on the regular album version itself and what should go on the deluxe edition. Had it been difficult to exert creative control in the song selection process? Jim explained that it was always a difficult process and fans would always point out particular tracks that, in their opinion, should have been included on an album release. ‘I think for us, what it is-is there’s, when an album-when we’re-we think 40, 45 minutes is, to us it feels like the right in terms of focus.’ Anything longer than that and he said that then it starts to lose its sense of vision.
In terms of the album’s production team, I picked up that Simple Minds had used the same people that had featured on the band’s previous release. I questioned Jim, did that therefore make the process somewhat easier this time around? There was already that sense of continuity of persons and methods. Surprisingly, he replied that in the previous, quite-extensive interview schedule that he had embarked on over the previous couple of weeks, this was actually the first time that the subject had been brought up. ‘You’re absolutely right, it’s easier in the sense that you grow together.’ He elaborated that there is also an existing sense of trust between the band and their production team. That sense of trust further extended to the band actually trusting their team to work on the new songs even when the band themselves were not physically present in the studio, or they were out on tour. Thus they also had a collaborative role in addition to that of regular production and recording work.
Knowing that Jim was a football fan I used an analogy to describe the album as being ‘a game of two halves.’ I felt that it could be clearly seen to be of two musical styles. He agreed but explained that while today that may be viewed as something quite abstract, it was actually something that the band had actually always done even dating back to their early releases. There was a bunch of songs that was almost like a young and earnest side of the band. That was the idea of the album’s first three or four tracks. These were simple and concise but very compact pop arrangements. Then the last few tracks on the release are longer songs. Some of those are six and seven minutes long and are more open-ended, cinematic and more experimental. I noted with reference to the later tracks that the band had utilised some Abbey Road orchestration. This in particular was something that Jim explained had preserved a direct link to the early days of Simple Minds. On the band’s debut 1979 release Life In A Day, they had worked with producer John Leckie, who had experience at Abbey Road Recording studio, having worked with some legendary artists, including Pink Floyd and also David Bowie. He had made the decision to use some of the band’s recording budget to actually go and book some time at the legendary studio itself. Thus at the young age of 19, Simple Minds found themselves in that legendary room. Jim stated that there was an overriding sense of awe and wonder that was experienced by the youthful wannabe pop stars. Some elements of the band used their surroundings to actually personally inspire them, but Jim himself found it had engulfed him with a sense of enormity back then. Returning some 30-plus years later, he found himself better equipped to enjoy and also fully appreciate the historic nature of their environment. ‘It was like a day at the museum and I just loved it.’
‘I’m proud that I’ve had the balls to invent this thing and then run with it, through the highs and the lows. Especially the lows.’
With a band of longstanding stature and a level of longevity I am always keen to discover if the creative spark still burns as brightly when it comes to writing and recording new material. Is it a creative process that becomes easier with experience or, alternatively, did it actually become more difficult to come up with new ideas for new songs? As the band had recently celebrated a quite-incredible 40-year anniversary, Jim stated that their musical journey in that time was something that he had recently given a lot of thought to. He explained that during that time they had written hundreds of songs and yet still they found the process quite mysterious. Further elaborating that there were no longer any rules, as all former rules and rules that had existed for a period of time had subsequently been replaced by other things. Experience would obviously lead people to believe that things would become easier, but instead Jim offered that it actually created a better sense of self-understanding. Jim explained it as ‘Things are easier when you’re engaged. Things are easier when things are going good in your life.’ He referred to that situation as having a good flow, which subsequently aids the songwriting process. However, when things are not going well creatively or there is a bit of a hiccup, Jim stated that these days there is still a certain level of understanding which is better than their old method of settling differences outside in the street . . . I was curious how the band avoided repetition, and was it difficult as a unit to keep constantly evolving while still keeping their music exciting and fresh for the band as well as their fans? Fans will always favour the band’s sound harkening back to a classic era or period. Essentially, they want the band rooted in the past in terms of how they sound with a new release. Jim compared it to being a bit like a Groundhog Day scenario. However, others would want Simple Minds to sound contemporary. Hence the eternal dilemma . . .
I picked out a couple of the new songs for Jim to give me a deeper insight into their creative evolution. Firstly, I referenced the track “Sense of Discovery,” which clearly paid faithful homage to one of Simple Minds biggest songs “Alive and Kicking.” Curious, I asked why the band had decided to do this on their new album release. Jim explained that they had been having a bit of fun. In actuality, however, the song itself originally surfaced on his solo project “Lost Boy,” which had been released about nine years ago. The song had not actually made the final album cut on that occasion, but he rediscovered it and thought, ‘That’s a Simple Minds song.’ He had played previously in a couple of radio sessions, but it didn’t have the “Alive and Kicking” thing in it! That came later; and was almost like a last-minute interlude. They were playing and Jim stated it was ‘one of these songs that we were doing and everyone’s going ‘Yeah it’s good, it’s good, it’s mad.’’ However, for him it was still ‘missing a certain ingredient.’ They would say, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I’d say, ‘Well, a bit like “Alive and Kicking,” when we came up with that whole thing that way.’ Because that’s what happened to that song. And so we consciously messed about. And kind of ripped ourselves off a wee bit.’ Instead, I rather saw it as evocative and giving a respectful tipping of the hat to a great song.
Singling out another track, I went for “Barrowland Star,” which I personally felt presented a different sonic soundscape for Simple Minds as a band. Jim explained that it was the band paying homage to an iconic concert venue in Glasgow which had played an important part in the history of Simple Minds as a band. ‘You know, it’s our Marque’s, our Roseland Ballroom; it’s a temple of live music since the ’50s.’ Different generations of people had passed through its doors since then. Then the venue itself got closed down for several reasons, including violence and that it became run down. Simple Minds got the chance to reopen it. Jim said that since then many famous bands had gone on to grace its stage. ‘It’s a dump, it’s a great dump. And it’s the ultimate rock and roll dump.’ However, despite this many have still come to regard it as a temple; it’s holy ground. It has some cheesy décor with stars and a fake moon, and occasionally some of the stars will fall off. According to urban legend, and also reported in some of the papers, when David Bowie was there, one fell off when he was doing his sound check, and he took it away and took it home with him. Jim explained that he was also in personal possession of one of those legendary stars.
We had touched on the band’s longevity and musical legacy, but could Jim Kerr offer me any explanation for Simple Minds still surviving in an ever-changing and often difficult musical climate? He hesitated before offering up this as an explanation, ‘I think we’re a hell of a live band.’ Jim explained that had always been their aim from the outset and the early days. From the age of 13, they were going to see bands: Mott the Hoople, Queen, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Lou Reed. A lot of prog rock bands: Rolling Stones, The Who, Alice Cooper. They knew who was great live and who was not. They wanted to be one of these bands that gave themselves out every single night.
The new album has some quite-unique cover art which I was keen to discuss with Jim. He explained that there were a couple of images brought up to the band, and he kinda liked them but couldn’t quite put his finger on what was missing. There were two or three images following the same concept but slightly different. Jim asked the rest of the band, ‘Well, what does everyone else think?’ They replied, saying, ‘Well everyone likes the one with young Jim,’ and his response was ‘What young fucking Jim?’ I said to Jim that they actually had a point with that. Initially he had said, ‘I don’t see-I don’t see it as me.’ Then when he looked at the picture that he had, he sort-of saw what they meant. Jim then saw it as a striking image. Next year, Simple Minds wanted to do something with it being the bands 40th anniversary, and use the kind of classic Simple Minds iconography, but for this release, they felt that they needed something new, something a bit oblique. The image then seemed to fit the bill.
The forthcoming tour by Simple Minds would see the band performing a three-part show. The new album in its entirety, a discussion/interview, and then a ‘greatest hits’ set. I asked Jim who had devised that concept. He explained that it’s not long ago that people were saying that bands like Simple Minds don’t play much new stuff. They just play the old stuff. When the band came up with this idea, the record company and everyone said, ‘No, no, this is brilliant; you’ve got to play the album. It’s only eight songs to begin with anyway, so you’ve got to play it.’ Jim then agreed to do exactly that, but felt that they then had to do a bit of explaining. On the band’s last acoustic tour, which was universally well-received, there were anecdotes, some serious, and some humorous. Some self-effacing. Jim felt, however, that there’s a kind of humility to it. He also felt that ‘There’s an art in the telling them,’ and that would also be incorporated into the live shows. This would offer up some insights into the new album and its individual songs. I was keen to discuss how the second part with the interactive question/interview part would operate. Jim explained that they would have some guy going around with the band that day, this Glaswegian guy, Billy Sloan, who was at their first-ever gig. Billy’s a radio presenter/journalist, who knows the band intrinsically, and also a bit of a pal. However, he was also not afraid to throw in a few wild cards. I suggested to Jim, would there be any interaction with the actual audience members? For example, would there be an opportunity for fans themselves to submit questions to the band? Jim explained that questions would be adapted according to the show location, which attempted to answer that question. The third part of the show would feature a couple-of-hours-long ‘greatest hits’ set.
I wondered if Jim, in conclusion, could tell me what in particular over the 40 years of the band was he actually most proud of. He explained rather surprisingly that it was really the smaller things that they reflected on most. For most people, they would have singled out shows like Live Aid, or playing at the Mandela concerts, or whatever. Jim did recognise that they were huge things, but instead chose those first few gigs where ‘you’re playing to three men and a dog and all that.’ He also referenced the band’s first trip to Belfast in a political climate when very few bands actually bothered to include it on their tour itineraries. Summing up, he added, ‘I’m proud that I’ve had the balls to invent this thing and then run with it, through the highs and the lows. Especially the lows.’ He said that it would be easy, if you’re getting bitter, to think the world owes you something. Just because you were hot to trot one day, it doesn’t really mean that you’re going to be hot to trot the next one. Jim stated that he had met a lot of those sorts of people in the business, and it was clear that you know they’re getting bitter; they feel the world owes them something. Instead, he stated that Simple Minds was actually humbled by this and fully appreciated that they still have the opportunity to do this. Jim felt that if someone had said to them this week 40 years ago, ‘What do you want out of this?’, he said that the band wouldn’t have had a clue what was to be gotten out of this. We would say, ‘We want to be in a band; we want to try and make it a great live band. We want to write songs and take them around the world. And what can I say, 40 years later, here we are still getting to mess with that challenge and how fortunate we’ve been.’