Simple Minds: Still Alive and Kicking
Casual American fans may be unfamiliar with Simple Minds beyond “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” and the handful of other stateside hits by the Scottish group. But the band led by singer-songwriter Jim Kerr has enjoyed consistent international success from the early ’80s to present day. In support of the band’s latest album Walk Between Worlds, Simple Minds embark on their first North American tour in almost two decades. In advance of their upcoming show at the Tabernacle on October 8th, I spoke with vocalist and songwriter Jim Kerr about the band’s history and place in the present day.
Simple Minds has a massive catalog; aside from the obvious constant – you being on all of them – what do you see as the unifying characteristics of the band’s music from the late ’70s to now?
“The songs on the first album were written when we were 17-year-old kids. We’re now pushing on sixty. So, one would say there’s a lot of difference there. And I would hope there is, because it’s been an amazing life and it’s been a life shaped by all manner of things that this band has brought to us. And yet, inherently, I still think there are a lot of links to those kids and to the people that we were then, in the same way that your DNA never really changes. Where I am in Glasgow now is a couple of miles from the school that Charlie Burchill, my songwriting partner, and I went to. So, geographically, we circumnavigate the globe, but all of us come back. The landscape of the journey will have changed dramatically as the years roll past, but it’s still that same journey.”
While several members of the group have stayed with Simple Minds for very long periods of time, the band has gone through its fair amount of turnover; some members have left and returned. Do you see those personnel changes as something that has slowed the group’s momentum, or have they represented opportunities to pursue new directions?
“Well, I think both. Sometimes the changes, when they came – especially when we were younger – were kind of traumatic. Because when people made some of these big decisions, I think now, ‘Wow. If we’d had a week’s break and had the conversation a week later, there would have been a different outcome.’ But when you’re young, and you’re feisty, and especially back then, it was young guys. There’s always a bit of a power struggle; all that stuff that you don’t really know is going on, but it goes on. And so I’ll give them the benefit of hindsight. Problems that maybe had arisen, you could have sorted out. But they weren’t. So, they could have been traumatic.
“However, alternatively, it does feel great sometimes when you feel great, charged, re-energized. I mean, 40 years is a heck of a long time. Even 10 years is a heck of a long time; who works with the same people for 10 years? Very few. We put the myth on bands, who especially back then were invariably male. You look at them a, ‘They’re carved in stone. They’re the original guys,’ and all that stuff, but the idea that they’re going to go on for … I mean, The Beatles couldn’t even hack it for 10 years. It’s intense. So, there are pros and cons.”
In the very early days of Simple Minds, you played keyboards with the group…
“Yeah. Sort of by stealth, they kind of moved the keyboard away from me; they thought that I would be maybe better out front and leaving [keyboards] to someone who knew what they were doing!”
Was that transition to being the frontman difficult, or did it come naturally to you?
“That’s something that I often think about. Going back to the years before I was in the band… the journey that I’d been on personally is not that well-documented, but in my junior years of school, I had a really bad stammer. I wasn’t quite a wallflower, but I was the last person you would think would stand up in front of a class. I did when the teachers made me – and they did make me – to read out. But I would rather not have done that. So, the idea that I would become a show off – or a front anything – is a bit beyond the pale when you think about it. But I’m amazed at how many fronting performers do come from something incredibly shy; they’re just the last people you would think to get out there and front something up. But that’s the way it happens.”
Are there ever times today when you wish you could fade into the lineup and let somebody else be out front?
“There was a period where I thought that. Because, as well as being the frontman, that’s not just onstage. Invariably, you end up doing all of the media, the press, and all that. And as a kid, even meeting record company people, industry people… all that’s a bit of a talent on its own. Because it’s got to be done. And if it’s got to be done, you’ve got to presume it’s got to be done well. And at one point, I did see myself balking and thinking, ‘This is a bit beyond me.’ But I’d like to think that you grow into it.”
The whole manner in which music is made has changed dramatically since the early days of the band. At what point did you begin to embrace the more modern and digital methods of recording?
“Pretty much when the technology arrived, when the gear arrived. One of the fractures in our band was caused by the guitar player suddenly being able to get a sequencer going, and come in with fully-fledged demos. And then the keyboard player would be like, ‘Hang on a minute. That’s what I do,’ and I would be in the middle of them saying, ‘I don’t care who does what, as long as it sounds great.’ We’re talking about mid-80s, around then. Once the sequencers and the digital stuff became available at a moderate price, then like many people, we embraced it.”
Across your career, and especially even listening to the very latest album, the music features a mix of programming and “real” instruments. Do you think it’s important to keep real instruments in the mix?
“There are no rules, to be honest. When we go on the road, we also run some [programmed] stuff, but the band’s got to be playing. Because we love great bands and we love the dynamics. But strangely enough – and it is strange – we’ll sometimes go through the circle. We’ll go, ‘Right. Let’s just do it with the band. Let’s get the band in it, and it will sound great because it will be fresh. So let’s park all the technology.’ And so, you’re playing and you go, ‘This is great, this is great,’ and then, after a few days, you’re going, ‘Yeah, it just sounds like a band. What are we going to do about it?’ And so, we get this sort of hybrid thing going.
“There’s nothing better than when we’ve got a great drummer or when the guitar player is letting go. But at the same time, it’s great to run the atmospherics, and play off stuff. So, I think Simple Minds is very much somewhere in-between there.”
The band has enjoyed rather consistent commercial success in the UK and a number of European countries. Simple Minds’ commercial peak in the U.S. lasted more than a decade, which in and of itself is impressive, but of course, that’s just a slice of the group’s overall history. Despite the high quality of the music and the sort of worldwide success, the most recent albums that you’ve released haven’t charted in the U.S. Do you have any ideas why?
“Well, there’s a lot of reasons. The main reason probably begs another question. Let’s just say that in the early ’90s, the wheels did come off our thing. Our longtime manager who had worked with us decided he’d had enough. Michael MacNeil, our keyboard player, decided he didn’t want to be in the band anymore, and hasn’t been in the band since. Also, considering we started in 1978, by the early ’90s, we were probably dead on our feet, anyway. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us, but we probably had run out of juice, which is rather unfortunate after being one of the big shots of the ’80s. Come the ’90s, the new kids on the block are coming over the horizon. That’s when you really need to regroup, reinforce, and reinvent because the young kids don’t want their big brother’s band.
“So, it was going to be tough anyway, and unfortunately, in our case, wheels kind of came off. Obviously we didn’t quit, we didn’t give up, but it meant that we didn’t do very much. We were kind of lost. We didn’t know where we fitted in. We didn’t know what was what. Grunge had come and gone. Britpop, all this stuff. We had to decide what we were going to do, and it took awhile. But in the time, the prestige and profile, certainly in America, had gone. And it’s been very hard to get a chance to come work there ever since.
“And that’s why we’re really delighted about getting this opportunity, getting out and coming to places. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect to be at the top of the Billboard charts come Christmas, but that doesn’t matter to us just now. What matters to us is to get out there, get playing, show that most of the people coming will be interested in the band, show people the progress we’ve made in terms of being a great live band. And who knows? Maybe as a result of this tour we’ll be able to add playing in the States to our regular touring bouts. Certainly, this is what we’re gambling on. And if that’s to be the case, then nothing would make us more happy.”
Some years ago, I interviewed Thomas Dolby and he told me, “Every week I get an offer to go off and do some ’80s revival tour with ABC and the Flock of Seagulls. With all due respect, I wouldn’t touch something like that with a 10-foot pole.” With regard to Simple Minds, what are your feelings on that subject?
“Well, I’d be a little more respectful, but we wouldn’t do it. I don’t think we would. We’ve been offered that stuff. We know we had peaks and we know where we came from, but we’re a band that’s still adding chapters to our story. Whether people are interested in those chapters, whether people know about them… we just put out an album there that we think reflects on the period we came from (i.e. the ’80s), but it’s contemporary.
“I would also say, with respect to those guys, we don’t have to do it. We’ve been looked after. Our kids have got shoes. I mean, I would be respectful to them. But if you said to me, ‘Tears for Fears are going to play. You want to play with them, go on tour, make it a great night?’ Sure, no problem.”
When the band began, the industry was very different. There were record company people between the band and fans. With the rise of the internet, fans have, fairly or not, an expectation of more direct contact with the artists that they follow. Is that sort of thing – social media, meet-and-greets – something that you embrace?
“I’ve been on Facebook and on our own sites and all that stuff. It’s something that we embraced in that ’90s period because when no one wanted to talk to us, we were kind of blessed, in a way, because we did have a fan group worldwide. And suddenly, this thing came along that let you talk to them and let them talk to you. Or inform them, at least. And everyone said, ‘This thing is great. This internet thing. You can talk to fans now.’
“It’s like, ‘Yeah, but what are you going to say? What are you going to give them?’ I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, that we’re good at it. What a great tool to get the message out. A lot of people who like Simple Minds or their favorite artists, some of them kind of support them in the same way that people support their football team, or their baseball team, or their ice hockey team. You want to read a little thing about them every day. And that’s my kind of philosophy for something going on, a little bite-size chunk every day to keep it going. Even if we were on tour in Europe, a lot of people in America are getting to feel the flavor of what’s going on here, and they feel a little bit clued up as to what’s happening.”
Obviously, the band’s biggest hit here was, “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” Do you think that North American audiences will sort of wander into your shows expecting everything to sort of sound like that song, or do you think they’ll be more familiar with and accepting of the new music and the rest of the catalog?
“Well, both. I’m confident there will be enough hardcore [fans] who will be really excited. We haven’t been in their neck of the woods for decades, and that’s going to be exciting for us. I know it’s going to be exciting for them because they’re talking about it on those aforementioned social network sites. And so, there’s going to be that.
“But at the same time, there is that colossal thing, that Breakfast Club thing, and ‘Alive and Kicking,’ and those MTV songs. There will be people who know that as well, but if that’s the kind of sound that they like, they won’t be let down.”
The new album, Walk Between Worlds has connections with what you sounded like in the ’80s, yet it doesn’t sound dated; it doesn’t have a retro feel to it…
“Yeah. I’ve got to say we lucked out, but we landed exactly where we wanted to land with that. Because, how great if you can conjure up those ghosts from the past, and as you say, not make it sound like it’s sort of a poor identikit, instead make music that’s still somewhat evolving.”
In 2018, what’s your motivation to continue with making music?
“Well, that goes right back to the first thing we were talking about: that link as kids. I can tell you that when we started the band in 1978, obviously we were naive. We had no idea of anything. And back then, no one knew about wealth, or money, or box office, or who sold what. We just wanted to be an especially great live band. That meant you had to have great music and great songs. And we wanted to take it around the world.
“And here we are, 40 years later, not only still getting the opportunity to do that, but still dealing with the challenge involved in trying to reach that goal that we set for ourselves. So, that’s what I was like back then. And that’s what I’m like now.”
Photo by Dean Chalkley.