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A Quietus Interview

He Travels: Jim Kerr Of Simple Minds Interviewed
Mark Eglinton , June 10th, 2009 09:51

Mark Eglinton talks to the frontman about innovation, success, loss and reinvention

Re-invention is a concept that Simple Minds are entirely familiar with. Their back catalogue began back in 1979 with post punk debut Life In A Day, which borrowed significantly from bands like Magazine while also incorporating a subtle crossover into pop; the band bunny-hopped across genres thereafter, culminating in late 1980s mega-stardom on the back of the grandiose pop-rock heralded by 1985’s Once Upon A Time.

Throughout their 30-plus year career, however, the influence of Europe (the continent, not the band) has remained as much of a constant as the voice of Jim Kerr; and his fascination with European musical texture has coloured much of their output. The darker, new wave aura of Real To Real Cacophony and Empires And Dance hinted strongly at time spent listening to Kraftwerk and Neu! — at this point in their career Simple Minds actively promoted themselves as a “European” band, as opposed to a purely British or Scottish one.

A label change from Arista to Virgin saw the release of the band’s next two albums, the first of which — Sons and Fascination — built on and perfected their Euro blueprint, while at the same time launching the band toward a significantly more commercial audience. 1982's New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) was the result, and frankly it changed everything. Some of the more experimental aspects of the past were there for sure but they were mingled with arena-sized pop; and that shift wasn’t exactly welcomed at first by the band’s expanding fan-base.

What followed, though, was the kind of appreciation and adoration reserved for the only the biggest of bands. This was fuelled by their well-produced, anthemic pop-rock which pushed all the right buttons in the lean years of the mid 80s. It was clear that this was an entirely different band. Inevitably, decline followed, and in this case it was as much to do with intra-band wrangling as it was with complacency or an inability to remain relevant. Line-up changes ensued — never ideal circumstances for producing supreme creative output — and by the mid 1990s Simple Minds were, whether they liked it or not, on musical exiles with no instructions on how to return any time soon.

Half-hearted recent attempts at a career jump-start failed; not surprising, given their changing musical fabric and a couple of albums that suffered so severely from lack of direction that they couldn’t find their audience with sat nav. But, to most people’s surprise (except perhaps Kerr’s himself), new album Graffiti Soul represents a significant and rather effective re-evaluation of what ingredients were so vital to Simple Minds in the first place. Just listen to opening Krautrocker 'Moscow Underground' or synth-infused 'Blood Type O' and you’ll hear what we’re talking about.

Hi Jim, it’s Mark from The Quietus in London

Jim Kerr: ”Come on you don’t sound like a man from London though!?”

Yeah ok, I’m Scottish too...

JK: [laughs] "I thought so. I just need to say before we start that I love the Quietus.”

Well that’s good to hear. Why is that then?

JK: ”I’m not trying to curry favour or anything but it’s the best thing out there right now.”

Appreciated, and I’ll pass that on. The aim is to commentate intelligently!

JK: “That’s exactly the word I wanted to use. I love all the stuff and the way it’s done.” [I prefer, Ed]

Enough triviality . . . the question I need to ask is: will Celtic win the league?

JK: “Hmm... well they really shouldn’t, but they just might I think. Rangers aren’t much better and the two of them are like two tired boxers plodding on to the final bell. The football in Scotland is rubbish nowadays anyway. Dundee Utd are probably, in fact they are the best team in Scotland just now.” [Celtic didn't win, Ed]

Do I take it that you are less abreast of football affairs than previously then? I mean you did bid to buy the club back in 1998 right?

JK: “It’s pretty easy to stay abreast nowadays really with all the online stuff but there aren’t that many hours in the day and there is so much better football out there to watch so it doesn’t appeal quite as much ‘cos the standard of football is so bad. As far as wanting to buy the club yeah it’s true. At that time our bid was in place and everything but the man in charge at the time was really shrewd in that he actually used our bid to inflate the share price and keep it up there. That way a few people made a bit of money as a result. The club is in good hands now and in a lot of ways I am glad it didn’t come about.”

Fair enough. The new record Graffiti Soul sounds as if it might be a conscious effort to be a little more relevant. True?

JK: ”It’s a conscious effort in that we really felt it was time to get our mojo back to some degree. Also we had a remit because we’d done this whole 30th Anniversary tour thing and had patted ourselves on the back and all that. We’re not really very good at looking backwards generally so when we made a pact do this new record we wanted to make sure that whatever we came up with exuded vitality and energy and wasn’t a punch drunk ghost of our former selves. We enjoyed the live audiences so much and thought how good it would be to play live with a really great record under our belts. So, we wanted to sound in some ways like classic Simple Minds but with a contemporary sound. How do you do that? Especially given that by ‘classic’ you are harking back to a previous era. We think we’ve found that balance though.”

Sounds that way anyway...

JK: “It says a lot that it should all begin on the Moscow Underground.”

Yep, a few would expect a big "Wooahhh!"-type anthem?

JK: “Of course they would but this is more atmospheric and somebody described Charlie’s guitars as being more ‘spiky’, which is a word I liked to hear. The whole track is a quite understated with that whole Krautrock type beat too. It kind of whispers in your ear saying ‘Come in here’. Charlie and I actually disagreed about this song and he’s the more commercially minded one. He kept saying ‘But it’s dark’. When I said, ‘Yeah but it’s dark . . . and sexy’, it was a done deal.”

So it’s reinvigorated you?

JK: ”Absolutely, in fact I had to calm myself down about it all. [laughs] It was a different thing because we went to work every day and really, really wanted it.”

Is that a new feeling, going to work every day?

JK: “When you’re young there’s nothing else in your life but the band but when you get older, inevitably you have more things in your life to dedicate time to. So yeah, it felt good to be doing like it means everything and it confirmed our passion in it all.”

Do you and Charlie get on OK nowadays?

JK: “Yes, by and large, but we do argue now and then. In fact the other day when we came to London recently to do some interviews we were in a taxi going to the hotel to chat about things going forward and all of a sudden this fucking huge argument breaks out. One of our colleagues was with us at the time and commented on how intense it was. I think it’s a good thing because it shows that the passion is still there. It’s all part of being in a gang; that’s what a band is all about. Even during our difficult periods we never blamed each other, or in fact anyone else.”

When you slipped off the radar you mean?

JK: “We slipped so far off the radar we were in Alaska or somewhere.”

Why do you think that was?

JK: “A few reasons. Firstly if you’re a big successful band and things go wrong, you’re going to get it in the neck. We were in denial about a lot of things too and there was a huge implosion going on within the band. I remember during that period when we were making one of our records back then and I was sitting watching telly seeing bands like The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses coming over the hill. All I could think was ‘Fuck, this is going to be difficult’, but you have to remain strong. There were glimpses of light during that period and we continued to play live and enjoy it and also make money; but we were totally out of the picture. When you think about it, very few of our contemporaries have stayed constantly relevant; U2 and Depeche Mode, maybe, but they are definitely the exception.”

Was quitting on the agenda?

JK: “I suppose six or seven years ago it was a consideration. The frustrating thing is that people can’t say ‘You guys could have made it’ because we did it. We weren’t just contenders. Very few bands lose it and get it back if you think about it. Take That did maybe . . . and Tina Turner.”

Yeah but she lost it, got it back, and then lost it again.

JK: [laughs] “Yeah you’re right. To get there alone, that’s a story. To get there, lose it and get it back is something amazing. This album as you know is our first for Universal and they could be excused for not expecting much. They probably thought it’ll be fine and they’ll make a bit of money but we really threw the gauntlet down. We decided also that we wanted to take the album through the territories, which could be considered a bit risky. We went to Germany and there was a thing on the TV about Mickey Rourke winning something. I said ‘If he can make a fucking comeback, surely we can.' So we compare our rebirth as a story a bit like his.”

Minus the plastic surgery presumably?

JK: [laughter]

How do you feel nowadays about your early post punk material? There are a few bands that owe you a bit of credit I believe

JK: “I like it all and for me the ultimate post punk band that comes to mind is Magazine. Them and, of course, Joy Division, early Bunnymen etc. That was the classic post punk sound for me.”

Away from music, Mandela was a cause you were attached to. Any particular reason?

JK: “Growing up you get to know things are either right or they’re wrong, it’s as simple as that. My grandad used to tell me about Africa and what a place it was when I was a wee lad and he’s always mentioned what the blacks had to endure then, so it gets imprinted on you at an early age. Then later when Thatcher’s government are tolerating this horrible Apartheid concept and somebody [Jerry Dammers] comes to you and asks if you want to be involved, it’s automatic and I didn’t need to even think about it. I have always liked songwriters who can get a message across in a song and pull out the truth, like a Springsteen or a Peter Gabriel, and before I didn’t even know who Steve Biko was. So to do Mandela Day and Belfast Child was important. Although with Mandela Day it carries slightly less fireworks now because Apartheid is no longer. Racism is still around though.”

On a similar note, you were involved in Live Aid and at the time you seemed to be one of the more vocal participants. Do you think for some others it was just an excuse for a career leg-up rather than dedication to a cause?

JK: ”A lot of them honestly didn’t have a clue why they were there back then. Geldof was very good at getting people involved for sure but I am not sure all of them thought it was that important.”

Finally, Jim, you seem to have avoided most of the better-known pitfalls consistent with the rock & roll lifestyle. Is that fair comment?

JK: ”I have never consciously run away to hide or anything. I live in Sicily nowadays but I’m not hiding and in some ways it puts where you’re from in perspective. There are enough things to do deal with in life and I’ve always tried to channel my effort into the stuff that actually matters.”