Forty years on, a new album reflects a classic simple mindset. Frontman Jim Kerr explains. Watch a complete 2018 concert by the band, below.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Forty years is an extraordinarily long time in the music biz, especially given the fact that the public always seems fixated on the latest sensation at the expense of those that have come before. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part, holding to a continuum is a challenge at best, and all but impossible at worst.
Given that fact, credit Simple Minds for staying true to a sounds and style and that’s shifted slightly over the years, but never followed any fashion other than their own. They’ve had their hits — “Promised You a Miracle,” “Speed Your Love to Me,” “Alive and Kicking,” and, most notably, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” — but have also maintained their integrity through a consistent flow of new releases and a steady succession of tours and high profile performances that have secured their presence on both sides of the Atlantic. Though typecast at times as New Romantics, dance devotees, Celtic mystics and powerful pundits of anthemic proportions, they’ve always remained true to their muse, wherever it takes them.
The longevity is even more impressive given the seemingly constant change in musician membership over the years, a steady shift that’s left singer and songwriter Jim Kerr and guitarist, multi-instrumentalist Charlie Burchill as the only constants. Indeed, the band’s new album Walk Between Worlds, released in early February and their 19th studio album to date, finds a sonic merger of past and present, emerging as one of their best efforts of recent times.
Blurt recently had the opportunity to speak with Kerr from his home in Scotland. Amiable and expressive, he was all too willing to share his thoughts about the band’s past, present and future. (Below, watch the band’s recent Berlin concert.)
BLURT: Congratulations on the new album, Mr. Kerr. Tell us a bit about what went into it.
JIM KERR: It’s the result of a head of steam that we’ve been building up over the last five or six years. I felt buoyed by the success of Big Music, the last real studio album we did, and I was further propelled by that. When we finished our last tour, we had a spare week or so, so we used it to our advantage to see what we had on hand. We always have a backlog of stuff, and before we knew it, we were up and running. In between, we also did an acoustic record. So everything came together over a year and a half.
The new album finds a spirit of optimism. Song titles like “Magic,” “In Dreams,” “Sense of Discovery,” and “Utopia” suggest that you haven’t given in to despair.
I think we do have an ability to transcend. We are in a bubble, this musical place that just makes us feel good. There are still things to consider. We are parents and grandparents and we have to believe that there’s something more. We have to believe that a lot of this stuff we’re experiencing now is cyclical.
How then have you managed to maintain that momentum for four decades?
We love doing what we do, and we appreciate the good fortune we’ve had in doing it. We have never taken it for granted. We’ve not always been on top of the game for 40 years, but then again, when you do something for 40 years, there are periods where you’re not always on top. Some records maybe don’t quite fulfil that promise. And when you do it for 40 years, it’s much more than a career. It becomes part of your life, and subject to all the other things that are a part of your life. We may be luckier than many, but nobody gets a free ride. (chuckles)
With all your ups and downs, how do you maintain your mindset when you find yourself in a bit of a slump?
For us, it all comes round again, and in the last few years, the band has been an absolute priority. Even when you feel like you’re beaten up, you can learn certain things about yourself. You don’t want to keep doing something simply because you don’t know what else to do. You’ll end up like a punch drunk boxer. It’s more like, hang on, the wheels may have fallen off, but let’s try to get them back on. Let’s see if we can get the engines going and get this thing on the road and take it as far as we can. That’s what we’ve done for the last six or seven years. We’re all about maximizing this thing that we have here. This is just what we do, this is who we are.
Speaking of which, your first hit here in the States was “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” your contribution to the John Hughes film “The Breakfast Club.” Ironically, it was one of the only songs that you didn’t write yourselves.
It was strange indeed. We had had success in other places, but not the States. College radio was great and we did well in some places like New York and L.A. but we weren’t getting mainstream radio play because we hadn’t had a hit, that big time radio play. We were starting to think maybe it would never happen. Our record label A&M came to us and all but admitted that they had failed. So they assured us that they would push our next record properly, but that in the meantime they needed something new. We tried to tell them we didn’t have anything prepared at that point. So they said, “There is this thing. This guy called John Hughes wants to use you in his film, and we’ve got the song for you. We objected and we made it clear that we only record songs that we write.
How did they convince you?
They insisted that the song they had in mind was written for the script. And when we spoke to John Hughes, he was a lovely fellow. So Keith Forsey, who had written the song, came over to visit us and told us how much he loved the band. He hung around and watched us while in rehearsal and became like our best mate. Finally he said, “Why don’t we take a crack at this thing and we’ll get the record company off your back? So we said, okay, and then we came up with those la-la-las and all the hey-hey-heys, and elevated it with that big sound. The rest is history.
Is it ever a challenge to maintain the signature sound that your fans expect, while also keeping your creative urges intact?
It’s not easy. If you’re a band of a certain vintage, you’ve got a certain style that you’re known for. With every album people will say, make it a classic Simple Minds album. But so too, they’ll tell you to make it sound contemporary? So there’s the contradiction. By definition, they’re telling you to go back to the past, but also insisting that it should sound like something new. You want to show off the DNA, but you want to be able to keep it fresh. The easiest thing would be to do the same old same old, but no way could we do that. We would be bored. So you have to do those things in right measure, and always fit things in the right boxes at the same time.
Doesn’t that mean that you’re constantly looking over your shoulders?
As soon as a record comes out, it’s judged in comparison to the earlier albums. But you just have to accept that challenge and tell yourself we’re going to do something great. At the end of a project, the outside world will let you know what it thinks. So you become more aware of your past and learn to reconcile with it. You do your best on it and then move on.
Even so, Simple Minds has seen a steady shift in styles over its 40 years. How do you view that transition?
When people ask me to describe Simple Minds, I have to ask, which Simple Minds? Are you referring to the New Romantic thing, the dance band, the stadium rock outfit, or our spiritual side? Maybe you mean the band we were back during the MTV years. The interesting thing to me is that we have that diversity and it’s a credit to the guys we worked with that they could play with such diversity. We managed to try all those things, but never lost our identity. It always seems to feel like Simple Minds. So when people come to define us, I’d simply say Simple Minds is a great band. It makes great music. They make music of their time.
After 40 years, that’s quite an accomplishment
When you’re in a good place and you have a clear run, you go with it. On the other hand, as you get older, you can’t guarantee that everything is going to pan out, or that you’re going to have the energy to continue. When you get a clear run, you have to get as much work done as you can knowing that other things in your life may eventually take priority. You never know when there’s going to be a parting in the road or even a bend in the road you weren’t thinking about.
Are you nostalgic? Ever find yourself reminiscing about all the history that’s behind you?
I’m nearly 60 and at this point in life, one does tend to have an internal dialogue about where you’ve been and where things are now. That does lead to a certain kind of nostalgic. I never wish for things to be as they were, and I’m grateful, because it would seem a little forlorn. Yet at the same time, I feel these are the good times. I still look forward to what’s over the hill. I enjoy so much of what we do and I still love performing love. We had some great ups and we had some great downs, but we always manage to roll with it either way.