A Conversation with Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr – HuffPost 11.5.14
Mike Ragogna: Jim, the video for “Honest Town,” to me, speaks to how much Simple Minds has matured. It shows Simple Minds in 2014 and I appreciate that your music and band are not aggressively trying to appeal to fourteen-year-olds.
Jim Kerr: If there are any out there, we’ll have them as well. [laughs] But you’re right, I think that what you see is what you get. A few years ago, we sort of cut ourselves some slack. We’re not the worst. Let’s get on with it, let’s get our music out there, let’s get people hearing where we are now and seeing where we are now. We’ve been having a ball doing it and we’re having a ball getting the kind of reactions we’re getting.
MR: The new album’s titled Big Music…just how big is this music?
JK: I’ll tell you how that came up, it’s a fun story. As we were wrapping up things for the album in the middle of last year, we had cut all the songs we were thinking of cutting and there was one weekend to go and the keyboard player Andy Gillespie had gotten into the vaults. We always have songs in the vaults; ideas that we thought were great but slipped through our fingers and we either never got the right lyric or we never found the missing piece, anyway–he came up with this piece of music that became “Big Music” and he said, “You’ve got to go back to this. We’ve got to look at this again.” I said, “That’s from ten years ago! We’ve been back there four times, we always end up chasing our tails. We’ve only got a weekend!” He said, “Well why don’t we spend a weekend working on it,” and I said, “I’ll tell you why, because I’ve got to see Prince in Switzerland. It was organized months ago by a right beautiful woman and I’m not missing it.” He said, “Well I’m going to work on this and when you’re out there I’ll send you something and maybe you’ll have a few hours.” I said, “Andy, go ahead.” Lo and behold the next day he had found the musical missing piece and I think, “This sounds great but the pressure’s on me now really to come up with the lyric because he’s going to want to do this when I go back and I don’t want to let him down. Anyway, I’ll think about it on the plane tomorrow.” Procrastinating until the end.
So I go to see Prince in Montreal. It’s always great to see Prince but it was one of those Prince ones where he doesn’t play anything you know–twenty-minute bass jams and stuff. I’m standing in the crowd and I’m sort of speaking to myself, “Give me the f**king music. Give me the songs. Give me the big tunes.” I’m not getting it but it’s still Prince, it’s still cool but I’m not hearing what I want to hear. By the end I’m really pissed off. By the time I got on the plane the next day I’d got over Prince and I’m thinking, “I still love the fact that I care so much about music.” We’ve been doing this for a while, we’ve been making music for all of our lives but it’s still great that we’re so passionate about it. As I was thinking about that, I thought, “I’m going to write about music and what it does to me and why I like music, the romance, the inspiration, this and that.” Lo and behold we had a song. And once we had the song we thought, “This is going to be the album title,” because it’s easy for the Germans and the Italians to say.
MR: [laughs] It’s like a celebration of friends old and new and a jam of sorts.
JK: Yeah, there was a real regrouping, you’re right. The thing is, it’s been an interest for a few years for us. We toured prolifically but it was like leaving a little pocket of existence because when you’re touring it’s so much about the catalog and getting out and really giving the story of the band up until now, which is fine, we love that, but it’s a boon to us to be writing another chapter. We don’t just want to be a museum piece. All that stuff I just said is great, but it’s also easier said than done. You have to come up with tunes that can live up to the big tunes that you’ve already got. In the hours when we weren’t on stage in the last four or five years we’ve been trying to come up with this thing that ticked what we thought were all the boxes. First of all songs that had the instant impact, songs that made you think of classic Simple Minds but songs that sounded contemporary. The album had to feel full-blooded, it had to feel full quality, all of that stuff is so easy to say, but to do is another thing. We put ourselves under pressure to try and come up with something. You try to do an album every four or five years, but now no one cuts you any slack, no one’s got the time to cut you any slack. You have to get on with the goods, and we hope that that’s we’re doing with the album.
MR: When you look back at that classic Simple Minds you talked about, what is the main evolution in your opinion?
JK: I think it is the songs. Yeah, we had songs back then, but I’ll tell you a story about our other band. We had this hell of a career, this great success and then in the nineties the wheels started to come off, as happens to a lot of bands. Original members start to leave, new bands come over the horizon and from being the big cheese suddenly no one’s interested. That’s the thing, you run out of gas, you run out of steam and what do you do then? Do you just run around like punch-drunk boxers who don’t know what else to do, or do you call it a day–REM–or do you say, “Look, we’re on the canvas here, never mind being on the ropes. Are we going to pick ourselves up and make music, the core, central thing?” For us in Simple Minds, the last five or six years have been about doing that again. It’s been about a renaissance based on the fact that we make music. Every day now, we’re either playing or recording or sound checking, doing all the social networking stuff, writing, whatever. It’s become the most important thing in our lives again. People say you don’t get a second act in life, but we’re having one.
MR: That’s nicely put. Everybody has their personal favorites; could you give me a handful of tracks from Big Music that really do it for you?
JK: Yeah, the last song on the album, “Spirited Away” I think encompasses that, and indeed the first song “Blindfolded,” is a real great scene-setter. But I mentioned “Spirited Away” because it’s probably the most conversational song in a way. The opening lines, “I’m not a complicated guy, I like things simple as can be.” That answers a little bit of your other question; I wouldn’t have had the confidence to say that when I was younger. I wouldn’t have been able to do it when I was younger because I hadn’t lived a life. I have lived a life now and I’ve got firsthand experiences and the underlying emotions that go with them.
MR: Do you think that’s the element of maturity to this? A personal history gives more depth from which to write?
JK: Well, it should. When we started out the band the only old guys who still played were the old blues guys. Even the Rolling Stones weren’t that old then. The thing about the old blues guys, you would never say, “Why do they still do this?” It’s written on their faces, they do it because that’s who they are. That’s how they see life and that’s what life has given them. We’ve been writing the songs for forty years now and I’ve got to accept, it’s gone on a bit too long to be shallow at times. Well, I think so. Some people might disagree. It’s the real deal, this is who we are. You’ve got your own experiences, they can be anything; a conversation with another, an image you’ve seen, a play that you went to, a sporting metaphor you’ve heard and you think, “That’ll work as a song.” It all goes into that pool and that’s what you’re drawing on.
MR: And I’m sure that thirty-five years of Simple Minds affects your personal life in a way that deepens the pool as well.
JK: I said to Emily that I think there is a point where you go, “This is my weakness, it’s always going to be my weakness, that’s what it is, but you know there are a few strengths there, so let’s work on those.” Cut yourself some slack. Give yourself a break. It’ll set you free and there’s a strength to that as well as you work on that ever more. I think when people sense that you’re comfortable with who you are and what you do, whether it’s on stage or whether it’s in what you produce you get a confidence, especially when it’s fully committed. Neil Young said, “What you do when you’re young doesn’t really count.” What he means is that when you’re young you’ve got energy, you’ve got all the time in the world, you’ve got nothing to lose, you’re listening to music and making music twenty-four hours a day and there’s nothing else in your life. Fast forward a few more decades and you’ve been hurt a few times, you’ve gone up and down, dreams have faded, things you’ve invested in emotionally haven’t panned out, your career might have gone down in the pan. It’s what you do then, he says, that really counts. And I kind of agree with him! You can get all bitter and fucked up and think the world owes you something or else you can pick yourself up off the canvas and go, “All right, let’s go at it again.”
MR: Does that make listening to your first albums like looking at baby pictures? Do those projects still resonate with you?
JK: They do, I kind of marvel at them in the sense of thinking, “Where did you get the balls to come up with this?” Essentially, we were inventing ourselves. We were not only inventing the music, we were inventing ourselves. You think, “Where did you ever get the idea that not only you could do it but that people would be into it?” I’m reading a book that’s been out in your neck of the woods for a while but it only came out in the UK recently, it’s called Love Goes To Buildings On Fire by Will Hermes. It’s basically five years in New York that changed music from the early seventies to the mid-seventies. It talks about all those guys in bands then and how they were inventing themselves or their world and I guess we caught on to some of that and did likewise. That’s the narrative that I see when I listen to those earlier records. What I marvel at is the vibrancy of the situation.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JK: Prepare to starve. If you get beyond that then great, but if this is what you want to do with your life then great, but don’t do it because you think you’re going to be famous and all that stuff. Chances are you’re not, but you might come up with something great and you might be a happier person, but you’re going to starve for a while. I tell that to my own nephew who’s in a band just now. I see some of the kids in Glasgow when I go over there and they ask about it–well, if they ask me. I would never vouch without them asking–but if they ask I say so. Don’t do it because you think you’re going to be making tons of money. Those days of music have kind of gone. Do it if you think it’s going to make you happy. I tell them you don’t have to be a mega rockstar. If you play Saturday nights and you’re happy with that then great, you can be a rockstar in your own world.
MR: That’s a very healthy perspective in an environment led by The Voice andAmerican Idol where it seems young people are more concerned with “making it” than making music.
JK: That’s the truth. Most kids who end up on those shows don’t have a career afterwards anyway. Go learn your chops. Go woodshed. Be great. Learn to read music, learn to write. This is coming from an ex punk rocker who still couldn’t tell you a B from a C but given the opportunity again I would. You have more colors to your palette then.
MR: And what would you have told young Jim Kerr when he was starting out?
JK: What I would’ve told him wouldn’t have mattered because he wouldn’t have listened. [laughs] He just wouldn’t have listened. Even with a gun put to his head he still wouldn’t have listened.
MR: It sounds like he has a lot in common with folks like John Lennon, et cetera.
JK: We kind of made up our minds. It was like, “This is it, we’ve thrown everything we have into it.” At the age of fifteen, we had discovered this thing called hitch hiking and we thought, “Wow, these roads in Europe connect up! You can be in Glasgow one day and a few days later you can be in Milan or Munich. There are worlds within worlds.” Once we had done that there was no going back. We didn’t dream about riches, we wanted to be in particularly a band that was great live and we wanted to take a run at walls. What can I say? We won the lotto in the sense that all these years later we’re still working on that challenge.
MR: You may still be working on it but in some ways you did conquer the world.
JK: Yeah, it’s true. Sometimes it works.
MR: These days what is it like saying, “Hi,” to Chrissie Hynde and folks that you knew in the past who were close to you during the run up?
JK: She was great. I see her quite a lot because we’re grandparents. Our daughter Yasmin has kids, so we go to the park together with them. I saw her recently because we’re in the same studio and it was great. My guys love her as well. We’re still such fans of Chrissie and all that. She came in and worked on a little acoustic thing, something that she does regularly that we had never done. She and I have a great appreciation society going on just now for one of your American bands called Future Islands. We both love them, so she’ll send me a link, “Check this, they were on TV here.” I spoke to her only a couple of weeks ago. She’s the greatest. She’s a lousy cook, but she’s the greatest.
MR: Thirty-five years, can you believe it?
JK: Looking at the mirror right now? Yes. Sometimes you go, “I don’t feel changed at all,” and then you look in the mirror and go, “What going on?”
MR: Jim, what’s the story behind “Honest Town”? It could apply to a lot of different things.
JK: Well, it can. I’ll tell you the story, I hope you’ve got a handkerchief next to you because it’s kind of sad. Four years ago my mom passed away and I came back to my hometown of Glasgow to be around the last couple of months when she was getting frail. I stayed with her and dad. I was hanging around and obviously I wasn’t feeling great because of what was going down but she said to me, “What are you doing hanging around? You should do some work.” I said, “The guys are all in different parts of the country.” She said, “There must be someone around Glasgow to work with. You’re never happier than when you’re working.” A mutual friend introduced me to a fellow called Ian Cook who is part of the band that’s been getting a lot of success in the states this last year, called Chvrches. He’s lot younger, he’s a kid, but I said, “Yeah, I’ll go and see this guy Ian.” I’d heard that he liked early Simple Minds and that he was talented.
So what I would do is I would hang around the house during the day with mom and then during the evening I would go over to Ian’s and he would say, “Yeah, I’ve got this and I’ve got that.” He had some lovely melodies, one of which became the melody for “Honest Town.” The week mom passed away, a few days before it was kind of spooky, she’d come downstairs fully dressed, looking great, the light was back in her eyes and she said, “I want to go out.” We were like, “Wow!” She hadn’t shown this kind of liveliness for a very long time. The only problem was there was a snowstorm outside. Dad said, “Look, you can’t go out, they said on the radio no one’s supposed to be on the roads.” She looked at me and she said, “I want to go out. I’m going to a Christmas dance next week, I need something to wear,” so I said, “All right, let’s go into town,” but I was thinking, “What the hell is this?”
So we went out and it was amazing because not only did the snow stop, but the sun came out. The roads were empty, just us, and she was oblivious to the weather. She just wanted to get in the car and go out. We’d always lived in the same part of town, so the road we took went past all the landmarks of her life and many of mine–the school we went to, the first house we had, the factory she worked in when she was a factory girl, where she met my dad, all this stuff and as we were passing them she was talking about them and how she loved her life and loved her city and she said the words, “It’s an honest town.” I thought, “That’s beautiful.” The sun was coming up and all that stuff, from what was a very sad experience it was just suddenly joyous because I could hear her talk about how she’d resolved and wrapped things up. That became the song. It was an amazing, magical thing to have.
MR: Wow. If there’s an afterlife, I’m sure she’s, well…
JK: I’ve been thinking about. People say, “Do you think it’ll get big?” and I say, “if she’s got anything to do with it, it will.” She’s our biggest fan.
MR: What’s the future for Simple Minds?
JK: It’s really pretty simple. We want to be better, we want to write better songs, I want to be a better singer, I’ve never been a great dancer, there’s room for improvement there. It’s still up to do.
MR: Ballroom dancing?
JK: [laughs] We can look at that.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne