This is an interview I did for the super-awesome pop culture site Popdose. And let me tell you, scratching Jim Kerr off of my interview bucket list was one that I never thought would come to pass.
Don’t look now, but with their sixteenth and seventeenth albums, Simple Minds is on a tear. Their 2014 album Big Music earned the band some of their best reviews in decades, and their upcoming album Walk Between Worlds (which will be released February 2) finds the band still exploring new ideas, not content to do what is expected of them. Simple Minds lead singer Jim Kerr was in France, and yet still volunteered to give 30 minutes of his life to talk to Popdose about the new album, and playing matchmaker with one of the most beloved singers of the Popdose staff.
They told me that the interview window was 4-5PM France time. I take it you’re in France.
I’m in France, yes, and quite enjoying it. I was out doing different promo in the various European countries, but it’s always great to be in France.
Before I forget, I need to tell you that my friend Mike thinks “Theme for Great Cities” is the best driving song ever recorded.
Oh, yeah! Well, nice choice. I can agree with him, because I didn’t write it. It was the keyboard player (Mick MacNeil), so it wouldn’t be too arrogant for me to say that I also love it. I’m trying to think how old that one, it’s got to be 37, 38 years, so, it was one of the first techno tunes, I think, in its own way, and it’s a tune that’s well loved. Some would say it’s one of Simple Minds’ highlights. Of course, being an instrumental, it doesn’t feature me. That might be the reason why.
You and I were first scheduled to chat in 2005, when Black & White 050505 was set for release, and then the entire promotional campaign was scrapped and the US album release was canceled, which is a pity, because it’s a really good record. What do you remember about that?
It’s sad to say, I can remember the campaign being a bit of a…Sanctuary was the [band’s] label at the time, and they folded quite soon after, so it may have had something to do with that. But I was talking to a friend the other night about getting a really, really strong reaction to the [new] record here in terms of media and a lot of stuff, and people talking about the renaissance of Simple Minds, and my friend was saying, “Black and White was a great album!” We’ve also had a couple of albums since then that my colleague was thinking…basically what he was saying was that the whole new movement of Simple Minds started with that Black and White album, and here you are mentioning it. I think it’s got really strong stuff on it, and it’s the start of when we got our mojo back again, and I think that mojo has been going through the various records since. I have good memories of it, especially the last bit, because we came to the States, and Bob Clearmountain mixed it, and he’s a master, so it’s a really good sounding record as well.
It is that, indeed. But let’s talk about the new album, where the band once again pivots sonically from the sound of your previous album (Big Music). How conscious were you of that as you entered the studio?
Well, it’s a thing where you…we came off the last one with a great high with the dates we did, and the reception the record was…we were feeling very buoyant about that. We kept the writing going, and we were feeling energized, so we thought, rather than sitting down and saying, “What’s the plot? What’s the plan?”, we thought, “Okay, let’s just start with the melodies and stuff. The direction will find itself.” It’s good if you have a plot, or a plan, or you’re going for something very specific, but some records, you just have faith that they’ll take their own course. And I think this one moves on from where we were last time. But it has found its own things, and in a way, the challenge, when you’re a band of vintage [chuckles], the challenge is somewhat always the same now. If you were to ask people, “What should I do here?” “It should be classic Simple Minds.” And the simple definition of that is you go back to the past. But at the same time, you say, “And what else?” And they say, “It should be contemporary.” [Laughs] Which means now, of the future. So you’re looking for a record that checks all of those boxes.
I have to ask, though: what happened to Mel (Gaynor, the band’s longtime drummer)? It is odd to see a Simple Minds album that does not include Mel on drums.
Well, there wasn’t one thing that happened. In fact, he actually plays on half the album, maybe more.
He’s not mentioned in the press release. That’s why I asked.
Ah, right. No, Mel did play on about half the album. You know, no great thing to tell you, sometimes you work a long time, and sometimes, you’re a bit closer, or a bit wider apart. If you look at what Mel’s been doing the last year, he’s been putting more energy into his own project, where he’s a vocalist. Don’t ask me why.
Exactly. Your reaction is mine. [Writer’s note: I have no idea what Mel Gaynor’s voice sounds like, so this was more a matter of nervous laughter, not affirmation.] We did this acoustic thing halfway through the album, this album, because what we do is…experience has taught us that if the time affords, it’s quite good to break halfway through, because when you do an album, you’re so in deep, you’re so up close, that sometimes you have to maintain perspective. If you can have a break for a few months, and come back to it, you hear it with fresh ears, it’s just good. So this time, what we did was we took that break, and we went into this acoustic thing that had been hanging around for a long time, and we kept prevaricating, and we thought, “Let’s look at that.”
What we knew Mel wouldn’t work on was an acoustic thing, because Mel’s more a John Bonham type. So we used another drummer [Cherisse Osei], she’s amazing, young kid, just unbelievable. And whereas we thought they were only for the acoustic project, by the end of it, we thought, “No, let’s see where this is going to go.” Charlie (Burchill, Simple Minds’ guitarist) and I, probably since the late ‘80s, when guys started coming and going, we’ve never felt obliged to work with anyone. The only criteria was they were great, and that they were focused. And we hope that everyone we work with is, but if you were to ask, could I see Mel Gaynor turning up again at some point, yeah, I can. But it’s just not the right thing just now.
I had an epiphany about Charlie while listening to this album: he’s the new wave David Gilmour.
I will tell him that. I haven’t seen him since November, we didn’t talk for about a month before Christmas, and I’m due to see him next week. Charlie’s a special one. Dave Gilmour’s certainly a special one. But unlike Dave Gilmour, Charlie has never had that guitar hero status, but I think he merits it.
The thing that draws the two of them together for me is that he can play one note, and you know that it’s him.
It’s funny you should say that, because we’re Pink Floyd fans, we don’t know everything – some of the other prog rock bands, we know everything – Pink Floyd was one where we didn’t know everything, but there was a documentary recently on Floyd, and I was watching it, and Gilmour was in the studio, and unlike you said, he played two notes, and I remember thinking, “Wow. I would write a song based on those two notes.” Ten minutes later, it turns out that they did write a song with those two notes! [Laughs] We’ve also done that with Charlie as well. Sometimes, it’s just a couple of chimes, but within those couple of chimes, there’s a whole scenario, there’s a whole world of inspiration. And some of the songs that Charlie comes up with…the way we work is in tandem with how we used to do it as kids, where he would come up with a little sketch and give it to me, and I would work on it. That little sketch now gets sent by mp3 from Thailand or something. And I’ll wake up and go, “Oh, Charlie’s been up all night.” And the ideas are really well-formed, and expansive. Sometimes, it is just a couple of notes. But very rarely is it something that immediately doesn’t get me excited.
That’s also quite the solo he drops on “Barrowland Star.” How long has he been wanting to do that?
How great is that? No, I had to push him! He kept saying, “No, Jim, it’s too much,” and I’d say, “No, it’s not enough.” You mentioned Gilmour, but I think Charlie’s real guy was Mick Ronson. And I think you can hear that in the “Barrowland Star” solo. That’s a killer solo.
I like the strings at the end of that song, which then open the title track that follows it. I’m surprised that Simple Minds hasn’t used orchestral flourishes more often, because it seems like a natural fit.
Yeah, you know, we have used them, but I would like to use more now, and I think we will use more. We did use them in the past, but I think we’re a little shy. And when you’re shy, sometimes they can just sound like a part of a keyboard, depending on the arranger. We used them before, but I don’t think we gave them the spotlight. However, on these tracks, we’ve done that, like on “Barrowland Star,” that juxtaposition between these cats in battle and now [something] from a different world, a different place, a different source of reference from us, they’re not placed in the beautiful thing. And yet at the same time, you’ve got Charlie, whaling away. It’s a great combination.
The album closes with the song “Sense of Discovery,” where the chorus does a callback to “Alive and Kicking.” Did you have any apprehension about nicking one of your own tunes?
I think it’s with a wry smile. I think people will surely get that, that we’re having fun with it, it’s…it’s a Rosebud moment. [Laughs] It’s holding on to something, this evoking, that’s the thing. It’s not that, and even if it was that, it’s not that. But it certainly evokes that, and I think you have license to do that with your own stuff.
It made me laugh, actually, because what I thought of was, I love the Psychedelic Furs, but when Richard Butler finds a vocal melody he likes, he’ll use it twice on the same album.
Oh, really? [Laughs] Minimalism! [Laughs] I love him, I don’t think I’ve heard much recently, but there have been people who have done that in the past, where…well here’s one: David Bowie went back to Major Tom when he did “Ashes to Ashes.” He referenced his own song, his own character. Let’s see who can be the first to do it with three songs. [Chuckles]
I asked some friends if they had any questions they wanted me to ask you, and one said, “Ask him about Chrissie Hynde,” and I said no, I’m not going to ask him about Chrissie Hynde. And then I re-read the press release, and I see that you’re touring with the Pretenders.
I feel like there’s a Fleetwood Mac joke to be had here.
Yes, well, I was talking to someone who said, “Didn’t you get into trouble the last time you toured with her?” Which was how we met. But I’m kind of delighted about that, we all are. We’re all such fans of hers, and of course, I know her in a different context, and thankfully, my admiration for her has never waned at any point. It’d be great, and not easy, to follow them (in concert), either. She’s the real deal, and all of those great songs.
A favorite of many of the writers at our web site is the late, great Kirsty MacColl, who sang backing vocals on your song “Speed Your Love to Me.” I would love to hear a good Kirsty MacColl story.
We knew Kirsty kind of before anyone else knew her, because when we first went to London, we used to stay in this hotel called the Columbia, and all the bands that stayed in there – the hicks – when they went to London, the record companies would put them up in this place. It’s kind of cheap and stuff, and people would hang around, and we first met Kirsty, she was kind of a chirpy little thing. She didn’t take any…she was cute as a button and smarter than anyone, and didn’t take any bullshit. And we would be coming back from the studio, and she liked Simple Minds, and she would say, “Oh, I can sing,” and we’d be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” We never quite took her seriously, and then one night, a couple of nights, she came down to the studio, she had sort of – what’s the word I would use – inveigled her way in [Writer’s note: Yes, I did in fact have to look that word up to figure out how to spell it], and we just happened to be looking for a backing vocalist that night, and within half an hour, she had taken over the studio. She was a much better singer than any of us, and knew how to arrange stuff and all that. And even more pleasingly, as a result of that night, her and Steve Lillywhite, the producer of the album at the time (1984’s Sparkle in the Rain), got together and became man and wife. We were friends with Kirsty for the rest [of her life], and as a result obviously devastated when the horrific incident happened, and we miss her dearly.
I have it on good authority – which is to say, Wikipedia – that you run one of the best hotels in Sicily. How did that come to be?
I don’t run it, thank God for that – it’s run professionally. If I ran it, it wouldn’t exist. [Laughs] It would be a disaster. Just around the start of 2000, for about a year, we definitely thought that the sun could be setting on Simple Minds. Everything seemed like getting blood out of a stone. I didn’t see much energy, I didn’t see much of anything, and we weren’t quite sure what to do. Ever since I went to art school and took a trip to Italy, I loved the place. It had become a big part of my life, and I thought, “I’m just going to go to Sicily.” I must have been in my Hemingway phase, that I’ll be a fisherman or something. I thought, I’m going to get down there, and I had friends there, and then I got charmed with the idea of this little bed and breakfast place available, and I got charmed with the idea of that. Then there was a piece of land available, it was on a hill with this most amazing view, and before I knew it, I bought the land, and had planning permission to make this structure, which initially was a lot smaller than what it’s ended up. And the rest is kind of mysterious, but here we are all these years later, and people seem to really like it.
I saw you on the tour when you had the Call as your opening act, so it made perfect sense to me when you covered “Let the Day Begin” on Big Music. I actually think your cover is better than the original, because you found the rafter-shaking anthem buried in that song.
Well, thank you. We certainly gave it the Simple Minds treatment, but no, no one beats Michael [Been, the Call’s frontman and songwriter]. I was listening last week to some of the other songs, and it was such a great thing for us to tour with him, because back in those days, when you toured, usually the opening act was a sort of baby band, and the main act would be the experienced guys. But Michael, he was older than us! He had such an old head on his shoulders, he became a bit of a guru to us. I think we toured with them twice, and especially the States. A lot of the States was unknown to us, and it was an honor to work with Michael.
I talked to Midge Ure a few years ago, and I pitched him the idea of a package tour that included Simple Minds, Ultravox, Tears for Fears, OMD, and Thomas Dolby. Midge is totally on board. Are you?
Well, I don’t decide those things. I’m a bit wary of package tours, but looking at the records from all the people that you mentioned…[Writer’s note: at this point, Jim is interrupted by the label rep, who gives us the ‘wrap it up’ sign.]
Are there any plans to tour the States? My wife has never seen you in concert, and she would like to fix that without having to travel to the UK.
I can tell you, hand on heart, I’m embarrassed, ashamed, that we haven’t been there such few times this last decade. All I can tell you is that it’s been very close a couple of times this past year. You’re not a million miles wrong with a package tour. We certainly need a band of a similar stature, because to really make it worthwhile, we all want to play to as many people as possible. [A US tour] got very close a couple of times, and they didn’t pan out. But I’m really sure it’ll be sooner rather than later. And if so, no one will be happier than me and secondly, I can guarantee your wife that Simple Minds will be in great form.
What are your thoughts on Molly Ringwald’s cover of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”?
She did it her way, you know? I can’t tell you how many people have covered that, and she did it her way, so kudos for that.
Very diplomatic of you. Okay, one question from fellow Popdose writer and archivist extraordinaire Will Harris: did Johnny and the Self-Abusers have any other songs that rivaled “Saints and Sinners”?
Well, I think “Dead Vandal,” because it was a Double-A [single]. “Saints and Sinner was the most appealing title, but I think “Dead Vandals” was as good as [“Saints and Sinners] in its own way. We didn’t think anyone outside of the south side of Glasgow would ever hear of Johnny and the Self-Abusers. I think it’s just that name. Well, let’s face it: it’s been downhill all the way since then.
Okay, last one: Simple Minds were the musical guests of one of the most notoriously off-the-rails episodes of “Saturday Night Live,” hosted by Madonna. What do you remember about that show?
You know, I really regret, now, not taking more time to really consider what it was we were taking part in, because of course we knew “Saturday Night Live, and I remember thinking, “This is ‘Saturday Night Live’!” And we should have been thinking, “This is ‘Saturday Night Live’!” I remember it was a colossal hang, because everyone comes down to hang out. I think that week, that month, Once Upon a Time was coming out, we were so rushed everywhere, it was all a bit of a blur. But [Madonna], at the time, was a big fan of Chrissie Hynde, and I was with Chrissie then, of course, and she was in London, they were in London a few times, her and Sean [Penn] working on stuff, they would come over, and I always thought Sean was cool.
I never thought that I was going to be able to get through all of those questions. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Ah, thanks for your enthusiasm.
You guys and Duran Duran basically scored my entire high school life, so I want to thank you for getting me through that…
[Starts singing] “Bop ba da, ba dop bop ba da, this is planet Earth.”