“When I say that there are a few songs about faith, I don't mean it in a religious sense...” hmv.com talks to Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr
With more than 60 million albums sold over a career that has spanned four decades, Simple Minds can justifiably claim to be one of the most successful Scottish bands of all time. Formed in Glasgow in 1977, Simple Minds released their debut two years later and began earning themselves a reputation as one of the bands at the vanguard of the post-punk scene, even if their highly experimental approach seemed better suited to the underground clubs than on the airwaves of mainstream radio.
However, that all began to change over the course of the 1980s as the band recorded and released a string of hits, propelling them to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Last week represented the 40th anniversary of their first live show and this week sees the arrival of their brand new album Walk Between Worlds. With the album arriving in stores today, we caught up with the band's frontman Jim Kerr to talk about the secret to their longevity, what we can expect from their new record and their touring plans for the next year...
Did you ever imagine, when you were starting out, that you'd be sitting here 40 years later, talking about another new album?
“How about if I told you that my parents weren't even 40 when we started? We didn't even know anyone who was 40, besides our grandparents! So no. But we have been thinking about it a lot recently, it was the anniversary last week, 40 years since our first ever live gig. All I can say is, if you'd have asked us back then, if you'd said that we'd have an album out on our 40th anniversary, I'd have said 'well, I hope it doesn't sound like it's 40 years!' We'd want something that sounds fresh and has vitality, something committed, all of that stuff.”
What do you put that kind of longevity down to?
“There's a ton of factors, and it became perilously close at certain points where maybe it wasn't going to continue, but it has and we feel incredibly fortunate for that. There are so many factors but the audience that we've managed to build up, and the live thing particularly, if you're a good live band and you tour as we did, constantly, then you have a following that is there to a degree through the good and bad times. Other artists might have one or two huge albums, but when they don't have that live following and find themselves out of favour, there's nothing to hold on to.”
So how long did it take you to pull the new album together?
“Well, it's not like back in the day, in the eighties you'd get eight weeks where you'd write and record, then put it out. We work every day, Monday to Friday, some of the stuff is for now and some is for later, but at a certain point we go: OK, new album time, let's look at the ideas, see which ones link together and which one feel in the moment. We go back and forward and probably over a year we sort of hammered it out.”
At this point in your careers, do you need to have a specific goal in mind when you start a new album?
“I mean, the goal is always to try and have quality. It's usually the same in the sense that if we were to say to people 'our new album, what should it be?', people would go: 'Make a classic Simple Minds album'. OK, well, what else? 'Make it contemporary!” And you go: hang on a minute, that's a contradiction. By definition, one harks back to the past, but you're asking it to sound like 'now'.
“But in fact, it's quite true. I think that's what a new Simple Minds album should strike you as being, but within that some albums are more electronic, some are more acoustic-driven, some will have more of a rock feel, so they they still come with their own characteristics.”
From what I understand, yourself and Charlie have always been the main creative force behind the band – has the way you write together changed over the years?
“In some ways it certainly has, I mean Charlie and I used to live on the same street when we started out, and this would even pre-date Simple Minds. We'd go up to his mum's house, up in the bedroom with an acoustic trying to learn our first little songs. We'd nothing to record them on, so we'd go back a week later and argue about them: 'No, it went like this!'
“But then of course through technology the whole world has changed so much, so now I'll probably get an mp3 from Thailand, Charlie spends a lot of time there when we're not working. So he'll come up with something and it's very rarely that he sends something which doesn't make an impression. Then I'll maybe sit and come up with some words and melody, we'll do that until we've got a pile of ideas, then we'll get in a room together and try to make them into song structures. That's pretty much the way we've always done it.”
Where did you record this one?
“We recorded both in London and Glasgow, which of course is our home town and has, luckily, a new studio. Studios are closing all over the world but in Glasgow there's a new studio called Gorbals Sound, it's a fantastic place to work. So we were between there and Battersea, where the producer Andy Wright and Gavin Goldberg have their own place.”
You worked with Andy and Gavin on your last album, Big Music. What made you decide to work with those guys again?
“Well, I mean obviously we rate them highly and there's something to be said for continuing to work with people, if you've done good work and it still feels fresh, then why not? And certainly this album was kind of propelled by the last album, it went down so well that we just kind of drifted into it.”
Do you see this as a continuation of the same kind of ideas?
“In the beginning it is, but as I say, about halfway through the album takes on its own identity. There are a lot of things on this that do not feature on the last one.”
Was there any particular track on that set the direction for the rest of the album?
“Yeah, as I was saying there, Charlie was sending stuff over and there were quite a lot of ideas gathering, so it was like 'OK, great, but where are we gonna start? Where's point A?' You're always looking for that starting point, the zeitgeist, and then when he sent over the track that became known as 'The Signal and The Noise' it just gave me the sense that this is where we should be now. I've got a kind of added affection for that song, I can remember the excitement about getting that, and also playing it to people for the first couple of times, everyone felt like: yeah, this is good.”
What kind of album is this lyrically? Would you say there's a recurring theme?
“Each of the songs are distinctive, but there are maybe two or three songs that reflect on some of the same things. When I say that there are a few songs about faith, I don't mean it in a religious sense, but I think that just to cope and get by we all need an idea of faith. On 'Magic' it's that kind of faith you have when you're a young buck with everything to prove, and I was channeling back into the kind of person I thought I was when I was 18 or 19. And then, as a nice kind of bookend, 'Sense of Discovery' is also about faith, but it's from a much more tempered, been around the block and beaten up a few times kind of perspective.”
When you're writing now, do you listen to new stuff that's coming out or do you try and shut yourself away from it?
“No, we're music fans and we also hang out with music fans. Sometimes you feel like there's nothing going on and you're just about to write the whole thing off, but then the next year comes around and suddenly there's two or three acts that you're really excited about. I've got to say, last year was not one of those years for me, but we were really engaged in what we were doing.
“On the other hand, we have such a wide and varying interest in all manner of music that a day could start with listening to a Doors album, or it could be Charlie Parker or Joni Mitchell, or Motown, or some Finnish composer...”
Maybe that's why it never sounds like you're chasing trends, which is a trap that a lot of bands who've been around for a long time have fallen into...
“Yeah, well, good luck with that, you'd just end up chasing your own tail.”
You've got some European dates coming up in February, do your touring plans for the album go beyond that?
“Yes, I think these dates are pretty much showcasing the new album, but I think the album will probably set off a couple of years of live activity at different points and in different places. There's a lot of ideas that are about to come to fruition on that, but yeah there's gonna be a lot of movement.”
What's it like putting a setlist together these days? You have a lot of material to choose from...
“Indeed. It's a nice problem to have, but it is a problem because you would love to make everyone happy, and we have audiences even within audiences. I mean, these dates around the new album are small venues, it's the hardcore fans that are most interested in the new stuff. If we're playing an arena you can almost assume that a lot of that audience are there to hear the big songs, but a good set should really give a whole sense of the journey that you've been on and reflect on the different parts of that journey. And hopefully it'll include a couple of surprises as well, but judging on the reaction we usually get when we play live I would have to assume that although it's problematic, we usually crack it.”
Walk Between Worlds is available in hmv stores now, you can also find it here in our onlne store...