Simple Minds: don’t you forget about them
Simple Minds, alive and kicking after 37 years, are preparing to release their 16th album and appear at next month’s Electric Picnic. As frontman Jim Kerr explains, they like to go forward, not back
When you have been the frontman of a world-famous rock band for almost four decades, it stands to reason that you’ll get recognised every now and again – but Jim Kerr draws the line at being confused with Mick Hucknall.
“I get in a taxi and the guy looks at me and goes ‘Ohhhh, I know your face – you’re the fella in Simply Red’,” he says, chuckling. “Then he goes, ‘Oh no, it’s Simple Minds. Oh aye, I’ve got one of your records – we played it at my wedding’.”
More than a few Simple Minds records have been spun at various social functions over the decades. Formed in Glasgow in 1977, the band’s line-up has chopped and changed over the years, but founding members Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill have been its lynchpins, steering the band from tentative punk-edged beginnings through to stadium rock glory.
Songs such as Don’t You (Forget About Me), Alive and Kicking and Belfast Child are instantly recognisable to anyone who grew up during the mid-to-late 1980s. Yet given that the band have a number of fine albums in their canon – most notably 1979’s Real to Real Cacophony and 1980’s Empires and Dance – it must get irritating to hear constant calls for “the hits”.
“No, no,” Kerr protests. “Nobody owes us anything. It’s the same whether you like one song, or whether you like the whole thing and all the B-sides. Of course, I thank you more if you’ve added to my mammy’s Christmas club by buying it all, but even that [the taxi driver’s comment] speaks volumes. Do I think that’s great? I think it’s fantastic. So they’re all a blessing, those songs; some are bigger blessings, I suppose.”
Like any relationship, being in a band and sustaining longevity has taken work over the past 37 years, but Kerr doesn’t speculate too much on the minutiae. “I would like to avoid the obvious answer, but it’s music that’s kept us together – the desire to create it, make it, play it, record it,” he says in his Glaswegian brogue, still robust despite years living away from Scotland. “I wouldn’t say that there haven’t been times where we did feel perhaps that was that, but those times have been few and far between.
The dangers of nostalgia
Nostalgia, he agrees, can be dangerous for bands who have been around as long as Simple Minds have. “It’s a two-track thing, because if you’ve had a long career – and especially when you go on stage to play songs from that career – you could say that in essence, that is a retrospective,” he says. “You could debate what the difference between nostalgia and a retrospective, but you’re saying ‘This is us, this is out story’, and you’re reflecting on it.
“We have audiences within our audiences who only care about the greatest hits – but new material brings vitality to the set, and should stop you calcifying and being a museum piece.”
Those new songs will be on the forthcoming 16th Simple Minds album, Big Music, set for release later this year. When we speak, Kerr is in London preparing to head back to the studio for the finishing touches. “We’ve been really lucky these past few years, and we’ve been working on it off and on for the past few years, because of the way we tour.
“It’s been very pleasurable in the sense that – and this is rare – but sometimes you get periods where everything you try sounds – well, I wouldn’t like to say effortless, but it all adds up. And then there’s other times where you think ‘Jesus, this just isn’t adding up’ and you’re pulling your hair out. But this album has been one of those times where it’s sounded good the whole way along, and obviously I’d much rather have it that way.”
The way that he and Burchill write songs may have altered over the years, but essentially, he says, they are the same teenagers trying to cobble together a decent tune.
“What it boils down to is that we look for a melody and we look for a lyric, and we look for an atmosphere and an emotion, and we try to concoct a song out of all of those ingredients,” he says. “We record it, and we take it around the world and play the billy-o out of it. That’s still what we’re doing, and it’s what we’ve been doing since we were 18.
“Okay, the gear and the technology are different; Charlie might send me an MP3 and I might be in southern Italy, and he might be in Alaska, but the actual essence is still the same. And thank God for that, because we’re still able to recognise what we do and why we still do it.”
Accept no substitutions
The band are closing in on their 40th anniversary and show no signs of calling it a day, but even if they were, Kerr doubts whether there is a young band who could take on the mantle – although he does make a concession for Baltimore’s Future Islands, who make him “want to jump around”.
“I should be nice and say ‘Oh yeah, everyone could’,” he chuckles. “But we’re from a time and place with certain values and sounds and I don’t think you can build that again. We were Cold War kids to begin with.
“I was reading just now – not that they’re any spring chickens – but Manic Street Preachers have got a brand new album. And they’ve been great supporters of us and have talked about us a lot, and apparently the new album reflects on our album Empires and Dance.
“Someone said to me ‘I wonder if you could do that’, and I said ‘No, you couldn’t do that [album again]’, because we were going through the Berlin Wall, we were watching Tiananmen Square, we put up with Thatcher. We came from parents that were a war generation. All that is part of our music as well, and that’s the genetics. The melody and all that stuff is incidental.”
After such a long period in the business and with that 40th milestone on the horizon, Kerr (55) has taken time to reflect on his career with Simple Minds recently. Although he branched out with a solo album in 2010, it is clearly his work with the band that he is most proud of.
“We made a lot of people happy, y’know?,” he says, shrugging. “I was doing some interviews yesterday and a question that came up a lot was ‘What’s the best minute of the live set? What song do you enjoy playing the most?’ And I said ‘I enjoy the last one, because I’m going to get something to eat soon’,” he says, chuckling.
“But seriously, that’s when you look out, and usually – 99 times out of 100 – people are jumping up and down, and they’re happy. There’s a feeling of satisfaction, that it all worked. There’s a lot more people involved in it than us, and that net result is, I guess, what I’m most proud of. That’s why you keep doing it.”
Simple Minds play Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Co Laois, August 29th-31st