Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr talks about a life in showbiz as he heads to Coventry for arena tour
He’s rock’s renaissance man; Jim Kerr is filling arenas once again. But, as he tells Weekend, he’s no longer chasing the rock‘n’roll dream . . .
For a while, it looked as though they were all washed up. Simple Minds slipped off the radar like a torpedoed boat. The Scottish rockers, who have sold an improbable 70 million records, appeared to have drifted off into the sunset where they could look forward to building collections of modern art or running hotels in Sicily – frontman Jim Kerr actually did that, it’s called Villa Angela and is based in Taormina and there’s a sales pitch from Jim on the home page – rather than gracing the charts or selling out stadiums.
Simple Minds were a busted flush. Pompous and preening, bellicose and grandiose, they reached a nadir as their 2001 album, Neon Lights, catapulted into the chart at number 141 – or, in other words, the same position as Dodgy Alan, the hand car washer from Wolverhampton, might expect to reach if he took his Karaoke Sinatra into a recording studio. Their next release, Cry, didn’t fare much better, stalling at 80 before sinking like the Belgrano. Eagle Records, the unfortunate label that released those discs, must have wondered why the hell they bothered. The band had been fired from their former label, EMI, and were in semi-retirement. Their number, it seemed, was up.
And yet something quite remarkable has happened during the past decade. Starting with their 2009 record Graffiti Soul and continuing to the present day, Simple Minds have been creating the sort of epic, stadium-filling, phone-lights-in-the-air tunes that characterised their glory days. They’ve rediscovered their muse, fallen back in love with the music and been welcomed back into fold. Theirs is the story of a phoenix from the flames, of a band renewed, refreshed and rejuvenated who still have the hunger of newcomers and are determined to prove a point.
From Graffiti Soul, the band took an absurd gamble with a concept called 5x5. The premis was simple – they’d go on the road and play five songs from their first five albums, which is to say, the records before they were successful. So rather than revisit, say, New Gold Dream, which went platinum, Sparkle In The Rain, which featured Waterfront, Once Upon a Time, which went double platinum and included Alive and Kicking, and Sanctify Yourself, or the double platinum number one hit, Street Fighting Years, which included Belfast Day and Mandela Child, they journeyed back to relative obscurity, where they were desperate to be heard.
It was the smartest move possible. By ditching the excess of their long-lasting stadium era, when they were quite literally one of the biggest bands on the planet, Simple Minds reconnected with the fire that burned within. They found the reasons why they’d begun in the first place, the original sources of their inspiration.
“I do think 5x5 was a really good idea, looking back,” says frontman Jim, one of rock’s more intelligent, personable and charming frontmen, as he relaxes at the Royal Garden Hotel, in Kensington. “5x5 was a rebuild. We knew back then that we’d have to be patient and do a load of work if we wanted to do anything more. You know, who’d have thought that playing a load of songs from your non-hit albums would be a good idea?
“At that time, we had a new manager, a younger manager, who came on board. Our albums have always been full of quality and so we were happy to do that. It’s been a long process but it’s also been really enjoyable.”
5x5 reconnected Simple Minds with their core fans. And, from that, other DJs and floating voters began to cotton on. So by the time of Big Music, in 2014, the world was waiting. Simple Minds didn’t disappoint. Creating the sort of sound that had propelled them into rock’s super league, they resumed their rightful place.
A brief diversion into acoustic-ama covers of their own hits in 2016 has led them back to this, a new record, Walk Between Worlds, which will be followed by a summer tour of stadiums – in this case, Coventry’s Butts Park Arena, on August 18.
Walk Between Worlds was produced by Simple Minds with Andy Wright and Gavin Goldberg, both of whom worked on the band’s previous album Big Music. It’s an album of two distinct sides, very much the old-school album format that singer Jim and Charlie Burchill grew up with as music fans. In addition to classic Simple Minds’ anthems and revisiting their new wave roots, the album also explores more cinematic sounds, with the title track and Barrowland Star both featuring dramatic orchestrations recorded at Abbey Road.
In August and September the band will be performing on the Grandslam 2018 tour, playing 13 of the shows with The Pretenders. It will be the first time the two bands have played on the same stage since Live Aid – a unique opportunity to see both bands in one night. KT Tunstall will also join them as a very special guest.
He describes Chrissie Hynde as a wildcat and a rocker, as a one-off and an icon. “The last time I went on tour with Chrissie I ended up marrying her, but I don’t think that will happen this time.”
The bands toured in Australia and New Zealand in 1984, alongside the Eurythmics and Talking Heads.
“The last time we were on stage together was at Live Aid and we’ve been trying to organise it again ever since. We have kids (the couple share a daughter, Yasmin) and grandkids, so we get on well. She goes on the stage and I see an icon, one of the greats. When she comes off stage we’ll chat about when we’re next taking the wee ones to the park when we’re both in London. I can separate it, which is maybe strange.”
Jim is excited about Walk Between Worlds. “It feels great. We finished it six months ago and we’re on to the next one. It always feels great to have a new record coming out.
“I think when you listen to the new album you can feel that head of steam. The mojo is well and truly back.”
His band are turning back the clock, while other rock stars burn out and fade away. “We’re very conscious of that. So many rock stars are dying and I get asked about that a lot. But I don’t really understand why. Are plumbers not dying or joiners not dying?
“I think there’s some relevance because we’ve been through periods where there hasn’t been any energy or where we’ve been lost and nothing has panned out. Now, we are in a rich vein of form and we want to run with it.”
And yet being a successful rock star at the age of 58 is an entirely different proposition from being a young, free and single gunslinger, aged 23, who hasn’t a care in the world. There’s the hotel, for a start, as well as the kids and the grandkids. There’s a need to maintain domestic relationships, rather than give it all up to chase the rock‘n’roll dream.
“Aye, it has to all fit. We’re much better at organising it now than when we were younger and it was chaos. It’s not chaos now. We work out what we’re doing so that everything fits, so that we have a home life as well as the band.
“We were rehearsing in late autumn, for instance, so that we could go to Thailand for six weeks at Christmas for a good holiday rather than worrying about the band. These days, there’s family and all that. We know in advance that we’ll be away for months with the band, so we make sure we have quality time with them before we leave. We rehearse early and brush up nearer the time.”
The fire is burning bright in Jim and he has the volume of ideas and inspirations that he remembered back in the day. Songs fall out of him like confetti at a wedding. Tomorrow night, Saturday, I’ve booked a few hours in a studio in London because I have an idea and I want to get it down. There’s no one screaming at me to get it done but I want to do it. It’ll be a demo. I want to see if it’s as good as I think it is. You get better the older you are and you want to run with it while it’s going strong.”
Arguably the most striking characteristic about Simple Minds isn’t the otherworldly success or the band’s ability to maintain their career; impressive though both are. More particularly, the most obvious quality about Jim and co is their humility. Though they travel first class, stay in the best hotels and have built a money-making machine, their feet remain rooted to the ground.
“Aye, there’s a humility about the band. You know, when I do the interviews and the people ask about the highlights then you remember Live Aid and Mandela and all that. But let me tell you something, you’re in the Midlands, right, well, I remember playing JB’s in Dudley and then doing the universities. I remember opening for Magazine at the Birmingham Odeon, which is no longer there, just as much as all the bigger stuff. I remember them crystal clear. I don’t remember stuff in between, if I’m being honest. Because back then, when we were starting, it was all new and strange and they’re imprinted on me.
“If we were playing to three men and a dog and they went mental, that gave the oxygen to carry on. And that’s what made it all happen for us.
“You know, I can talk to you about the time I hung out with Jack Nicholson – and all of that’s nice – but if I’m being totally honest, that doesn’t come to mind, it’s the early stuff that does.”
One of the other remarkable characteristics of Simple Minds is that the band have continued to move forward at a time when their contemporaries have backslid.
While many bands hit the road for a celebration of greatest hits or to revisit a record that was released 25 or more years ago, Simple Minds continue to write new songs.
“Being creative is the important thing. Since we were kids and writing songs, Charlie and I, at 14-15, that’s what we’ve loved.
“I am writing tomorrow because I have to get a song out of my head. It’s exciting. It’s who we are and so that nostalgia thing is not even a question to us. The danger about stopping writing is that you become your own tribute band and we’d never do that. You calcify, you become a museum piece. I wouldn’t knock people iof they do that, they might have been forced into things because of a stinking record deal. But it’s not us.”
In the final analysis, Jim has arrived at a place where he’s free to do the things he loves – write, sing, perform – while living a sort-of normal life as a dad, a good mate, a granddad and more.
“Aye. That’s the thing for me. It’s about being all of those things, about being a bit of a laugh, about inspiring a few people and, above all else, realising how incredibly lucky I am.
“Normally, as a band, we work Monday to Fridays and by Friday afternoon I’m ready to retreat to this little place I have in the Highlands, which is just magic. There’s no internet, just the landscape. That’s where my friends and I get away. I’m a hiker and I’m a walker and being alone helps me to regain my equilibrium. I get the best of both worlds. I’m the lucky one.”