Q&A: Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr On Working With CHVRCHES, Running To Ryan Adams, And Big Music
Even with my never-ending obsession with music from the early ’80s, it’s a pretty rare opportunity when I get the chance to write anything about my favorites from that era. Last week, one of those rare opportunities popped up. I called Jim Kerr, the frontman of the Simple Minds — i.e., the man who sang a handful of my favorite songs, ever — while he was in Glasgow to talk about the band’s first new record in five years, Big Music. It’s a title so appropriate for the Simple Minds’ music that it’s surprising it’s taken them more than three decades to apply it. Whether it was the massive choruses of pop-era Simple Minds, like “Don’t You Forget About Me” or “Alive And Kicking,” or whether it was the twistier, artier stuff from Empires And Dance or New Gold Dream (81/82/83/84), there’s always been an expansiveness to their music. At its core, Simple Minds’ music has always sounded to me like the product of city rhythms, but also possessing a hunger to see and consume and understand all the permutations of our world and the people in it. Movement’s always been a major theme, and accordingly my conversation with Kerr touched on little bits and pieces from the whole of this 35-year arc he’s been on with the Simple Minds — from the new, big music to the old, big music, to his love for his adopted home in Italy.
STEREOGUM: The first thing I want to ask you about is the title Big Music. I was reminded of the Waterboys’ use of the term “The Big Music” when I first heard about it.
JIM KERR: You’ve got a good memory. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: So how’d you wind up naming it that?
KERR: Well, you’re right about the Waterboys, [but] it came from the [new Simple Minds] song itself. The title track. It’s quite a cute story actually. We had that music, this basic melody and the idea of the music, for about a decade now. And every time we went to it, we would get excited but I’d have some kind of stumbling block. I could never really get anything I thought matched the music or matched the track well. So, it would come out and it would go on the backburner, come out again and go on the backburner, and finally it really disappeared into the mists of time. We had forgotten about it. Last year, just as we were about to close the door on tracks for the album, the keyboard player, Andy Gillespie, he said, “Listen, I’ve found this piece of music—when was this done? It’s great. You should really look at it,” and all that. And [Simple Minds co-founder and guitarist] Charlie Burchill and I, were saying “Oh, not that one, it’s slipped through our fingers so many times.” [Gillespie] said, “Well, give me a chance to work on it over the weekend, see if I can maybe find the missing piece.” I said, “Well, great, you can do that, but I’m going to see Prince in Switzerland.” It had been organized for months. I said, “If you get anything, send me a mp3.” I went to Switzerland, and the next day he sent me a mp3, and he found this missing musical piece for the track which I thought sounded great. Anyway, I go and see Prince. As I’m in there, it’s one of those Prince nights where he doesn’t play anything, really, that you want to hear. Some funky twenty minute jazz solos. It was cool, because it was Prince, it’s always cool. But I was pissed, you know? I was actually saying, “Give me the music, give me the tunes, give me the big tunes!” I was kinda talking to myself and willing him to play the stuff I wanted him to play. Well, he didn’t, but I was flying back on the plane, I was listening to the track, and all the sudden — really, what came to me when I was watching the thing was how much music still meant to me, how much the big melodies still meant to me, how much the emotions of music still meant to me after all this time, especially when you go to see it live. That became the song, not so much about Prince but about the effect of music. Once we got to doing the song, we started talking about it being a title track. And then, you know, when the marketing people came in they were like, “Oh, that’s really good, because people in Italy and Germany can see Big Music and everyone understands it. It’s such a catchy thing.” And I was like, “Yeah, but what about the Waterboys…” [Waterboys frontman] Mike [Scott] might chase me down. But we’re quite happy with it.
STEREOGUM: You worked with Iain Cook from CHVRCHES on some of these songs. I was wondering how you came to meet him and how you found the experience of working with him.
KERR: It was a great experience. Exactly four years ago, it was a sad period for me because my mum was on the verge of passing away and I’d come back to Glasgow to be around during the last weeks. I was staying at the house with Mum and Dad. She actually said to me, “What are you doing sitting around, go and do some work.” She just knew I wasn’t being myself, obviously. I thought, “You know what, I’m probably freaking out just sitting and moping around, she’s right.” So Iain and I had a mutual friend and he said, “I’m gonna take you over to see [him].” I’d just previously done a solo record and worked with various people, and I was thinking about maybe doing another one. He said, “There’s this kid that it’d be good for you to work with.” I said cool. Iain was only ten minutes away, and it was amazing because the neighborhood Iain lived in was only three houses away from where we started as a garage band, really, as Simple Minds. It was like coming back full circle, but in Iain’s basement. I went in, and I had never met him but I could see from all the stuff he had on the walls that he was a real music guy. I said, “Look, let’s do something.” He said, “Well, I’ve been working on a couple of things. I listened to some of your earlier records and I’ve been working on a couple of things that might be of interest to you.” And, indeed, one of the first things he played me became the melody for the track “Honest Town.” That was four years ago. They were just sort of putting together [CHVRCHES], they hadn’t even found Lauren [Mayberry] yet, I don’t think. CHVRCHES were just starting out. But it’s been amazing to see the success that they’ve had. Iain and I wrote probably about ten songs over a period of two weeks.
STEREOGUM: Do you think the other stuff will wind up coming out at some point?
KERR: I think it definitely will. There’s two that I think — well, then we’re gonna have a fight as to whether he gets them for CHVRCHES or I get them. Not really, I’ll do whatever he likes to do. I mean, definitely, in my opinion, there’s enough quality for them to see the light of day.
STEREOGUM: The other collaboration I was curious about with this record was that you worked with Steve Hillage again, for the first time since he produced Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call in 1981. What was it like bringing him back into the fold so many years later?
KERR: What had happened was, we did this thing about five years ago — it was interesting, we repackaged the first five albums and put them out in a box. We called it X5. [We did a tour] and we played five songs from [each of] those first five albums. For a lot of people who love those albums it was really special, and it was special for us as well. In doing that, we tuned into the essence of those earlier records again. To be honest, some of that process resulted in some of the songs on Big Music. Steve came to the London gig. It was great to see him, I hadn’t seen him in the longest time. He said, “I’ve got a little studio just off of Ladbroke Grove, where we used to work. [Ladbroke Grove is a tube stop in London, not far from the Portobello Road Market —Ed.] We said, “Look, next time we’re in London we’ll get a couple ideas and we’ll come in and just see what happens.” And, indeed, that’s what we did. We worked with Steve on two or three tracks and it got the ball rolling.
STEREOGUM: You’ve said this record deals with similar themes you’ve always been attracted to, and in particular I’m thinking of when you said you were writing about “great cities and movements of people.” I’ve definitely always thought of Simple Minds very much as city music, but I was interested to hear how you thought about this stuff in relation to the new record, and how that might fit into the grander scheme of older Simple Minds music.
KERR: They say that artists have two or three themes that they’re always going back to or riffing off. If that is the case with Simple Minds, this idea of movement, or searching, or being on the move: it’s obviously been the story of our lives, albeit through touring. But even before we were touring, Charlie and I used to hitchhike all over Europe. We were living out our version of the Beatniks, you know? Our version of Kerouac and all those guys. We would hitchhike to see bands, but then we’d hook up with people and end up in some [situation], living in Leipzig for two weeks or something like that. I guess it comes from a restlessness. Not sort of “ants in our pants,” but a kind of restlessness. Especially in Europe — the States also, where you’ve got that landmass — but in Europe cultures and landscapes change within a hundred kilometers, and there’s worlds within worlds. Within those worlds, there’s good things going on. Within those worlds, there’s tragic things. Especially back then, you know, when you had the Berlin Wall and all that stuff. That seemed to be … we always felt with our music we were on some kind of journey. We still do, both metaphorically and physically. Likewise, looking around, the first track of the album, “Blindfolded,” it opens with an image — I remember the first time we’d been in El Paso in Texas, and Juarez, and first hearing about the immigrants across the border there and they go through these trips trying to come from one world into the next. Where I [live] in Italy just now, it’s also a gateway for immigrants coming in from Africa. There’s a lot of problems — a lot of them die on the way, lose their lives just making this journey. It seems to be that some of that imagery just pops in the songs. I’m sitting in Glasgow just now, I’m a Scotsman but third generation Irish, and there are people here who are the same thing. We’re here because people went on the move. All of America’s there because people went on the move. These are universal themes that are ongoing.
STEREOGUM: On the notion of movement and everything — when did you move to Italy? I didn’t realize you lived there.
KERR: Well, what happened was — I first went to Italy with school. School took us on a trip when I was fifteen and I like to say — I don’t know what age you are, but it was like I discovered the world was in color. Glasgow — don’t get me wrong, I love Glasgow, but in the ’60s and ’70s the city was on its knees. It was kind of bankrupt. It was pretty monochrome. Going to Italy was like, “Wow, look at this.” I fell in love with the place. I’ve been going ever since. Probably about ten, twelve years ago was the only time in the band where for about a year we kind of started to think, “You know what, maybe this is it.” Getting songs was like getting blood out of a stone. We didn’t just want to go around like punch-drunk boxers because there was nothing else to do. We’d been looked after, we didn’t have to do that. We weren’t quite sure what was going to happen, but within that I thought, “Alright, here’s my time to go and settle home in Italy,” which is what I always wanted to do, and get the language, and all that stuff. I did that. That was about ten years ago, no, twelve years ago, sorry … no, fourteen years ago, I’ve got it. And then as soon as I got everything set up, the music kinda came back to us. We’ve been pretty busy ever since. I do have my place there, I do have the language, but I haven’t had the chance to spend as much time there as I thought I was going to.
STEREOGUM: And you own a hotel there, right?
KERR: I own it, I don’t run it. There’s professional people running it. It would last about a month if I was running it. Not only that, but I’m not there to run it. That was part of a thing I got into there. I got into it with a partner and he ended up bailing. It’s mine and my son’s now, he looks after it and he works in it. It’s cool.
STEREOGUM: In the last ten or so years, there’s been a lot of music where you could really see the influence of the early ’80s coming back, whether melodically or bands just going synth-pop or whatever. At this pint, you’ve kind of seen your style come in and out of vogue a few times. I don’t know how much you keep up with contemporary music, but what’s it like seeing that unfold?
KERR: I guess this stuff all does go in cycles, not just in music, but in literature, architecture, design, fashion. You know, one minute you’re in fashion and then you’re completely out of fashion, but if you hang around long enough and don’t get desperate, suddenly you become “classic.” You see that happening all the time. It has been … I mean, the thing with Simple Minds is that there’s many Simple Minds within Simple Minds. There was definitely an electronic art-rock phase; a lot of people associate us with the big MTV pop age. Other people you talk to and they say “Oh, Simple Minds are stadium rock.” I’ll say, “Hang on a minute, I think it can be all those things.” We have been all of those things. The electronics, I think those first four or five records … I can say it without thinking I’m blowing my own horn, but, you know, people do see them as pioneering. For decades now, the stuff’s been getting sampled. It’s a great thing to see. But, yeah, I mean, it’s thrilling. I’m not blasé about it, even though I might seem blasé when I talk about the procedure of things going in and out of fashion. One minute, no one wants to know you, and the next minute it’s like “Oh, they’re using your music on the fashion catwalks in Paris.” You think, “Well, what’s gone on?”
STEREOGUM: Whether you met them or just heard them, have you come across any newer artists in the last five or ten years that you heard some Simple Minds influence in? Or anyone who’s told you they were really inspired by you when they were younger?
KERR: We don’t really meet them so much, you know, but you read stuff. Bands like Editors, but yeah there has been quite a few and then there’s been people you’d never expect. This isn’t from the last ten years, but the other day over at the Q Awards, people like Billy Corgan come up. I read an interview with Ryan Adams, who I’m a big fan of, and he was going into a lot of detail about our earlier records. I wouldn’t think Ryan Adams, I can’t see the association. You’re never quite sure what people listened to when they were kids, and if it’s been us and we’ve inspired them or even given them a good time, then that’s great.
STEREOGUM: It’s funny you bring up Ryan Adams, because I interviewed him in September and we actually talked about the Simple Minds.
KERR: Did you? Maybe it came from your interview.
STEREOGUM: We didn’t really go into detail in mine, but he was talking about what music he listens to when he runs. He was talking about how he’s always loved early ’80s music and he mentioned Simple Minds.
KERR: Well, you know what, if you ever talk to him again — I run to his music! [laughs] Especially that track “New York, New York,” I love that.
STEREOGUM: To go back to what you were saying about how Simple Minds have been all these different things, from art-rock to stadium rock—how do you feel about that divide between the earlier, more experimental years and the poppier MTV years? I’m wondering what you think of the pop breakthrough years these days, based on some of your comments I’ve read. Whether you aren’t really a fan of how things went after that. Not that you’ve disparaged it, necessarily, but I’ve seen a few comments where it seemed like you were more about the earlier stuff before that.
KERR: Genuinely, I like the pop years as well. The Once Upon A Time album, that we did — we decided to do that, that’s what we wanted to do. I’ve gotta say, when we really put our minds into something, we’re pretty good at pulling it off. You know, if you’re gonna do … lots of other people have done America and failed miserably. So we said, “Let’s do this.” We went to New York and we worked with Bob Clearmountain and Jimmy Iovine, these great American guys in these American studios. In my opinion, we flourished. It was a different … I could see why people who liked the earlier records might go, “Hang on a minute, this is not my thing anymore.” But, you know, things evolve. We couldn’t … we had a voracious appetite for listening to all different kinds of music. If you were in our touring minivan in 1978 and 1979, you would have heard all the German electronic krautrock, but you also would’ve heard Springsteen. You would’ve heard Diana Ross, James Brown. Our [original] drummer [Brian McGee] was the biggest damn ELO fan in the world. He didn’t last long. [laughs] There was only two kinds of music to us: great music and music that wasn’t worth its salt. Obviously through the periods we would tune into different styles we were consumed by, and I think sometimes we just moved too fast for certain people. I could understand that — I didn’t like it, but I could understand it. And then when it came to this thing, when this MTV thing took over the world, that was like, suddenly … it’s hard to describe, there was nothing, and then MTV was in every bar in the world. Go into Tokyo, MTV’s there. Go to Australia, MTV’s there. Go to the north of Scotland, MTV’s there. You’re like, “You know what, we better get on that.” If we want people to hear the music. So, no, I don’t…on one hand, I understand that the band’s imagination was probably at its most fertile in those five years, those early five years and those early five albums, but when it came to songwriting — when you say, “Let’s do a big pop rock album,” you know, Once Upon A Time, it hits the mark. So I’m not tough on it. There’s a few records that I am tough on because I think we didn’t finish them off. We were one or two songs short, and for that, you know, I feel bad. You know, all of the periods, I embrace them.
STEREOGUM: Is there a particular Simple Minds record that’s your personal favorite, or sums up the whole story for you?
KERR: I think, New Gold Dream, for the critics … when I think about making that record a smile comes to my face. It was just one of these things where everything we tried worked. Other records you think, “Yeah, we went in, and the first half worked and the other half we were tearing each other’s hair.” It just worked. The weather was good. We finished the album, and we played it for the next six months to ourselves. We just loved it. You know, it’s hard to separate all the great feelings with that. But, you know, you mentioned Hillage and Sons And Fascination, and although we didn’t quite have our chops together and some of the things were a little bit over-ambitious, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I have a great affinity with that record also.
(Album stream via Idolator)
Big Music is out 11/4 via Simple Minds.