Music interview '“ Simple Minds: '˜We never wanted to do anything that gave a hint of trying to rest on the past'
Simple Minds have a new album out and a summer tour planned. Duncan Seaman spoke to guitarist Charlie Burchill.
From youthful punk rockers to synth pop pioneers then on to a band who could fill stadiums in their late 1980s/early 1990s pomp, Simple Minds have been many things in their time.
Their new album, Walk Between Worlds, however finds the group’s songwriting bedrock, Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill, successfully revisiting the Mittel-European sound that first propelled them to critical acclaim. A combination of electric guitars, atmospheric electronics and arthouse-inspired lyrics, it was encapsulated in the albums Empires and Dance and Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, released between 1980 and 81.
On a recent visit to BBC 6Music Kerr chose I Travel, from 1980, as the song that most closely resembled the musical direction in which Simple Minds were currently bound.
Expanding on the theme today, 58-year-old Burchill says: “Empires and Dance, that album that I Travel was on, it was quite an obscure album in many ways, but I Travel itself we always thought it was a very European song, it had a new sound for us, a kind of electronic mix with a live band. This particular album that we’ve been working on is a real hybrid of what we’ve done for a long time, but it’s coming through very strongly on this record.”
For the Glaswegian guitarist and keyboard player the things that inspired that sound remain “lodged so relevantly” in mind. “I’ve thought about this a lot recently,” he says. “In some ways you try to listen to new material and new artists but the thing is that stuff is so lodged inside you that inevitably all your references come from stuff that’s deeply embedded.
“We were talking yesterday and someone quoted a line from Lou Reed’s New York album and it suddenly dawned on me that that was a certain part of my life. It’s just always in there somewhere.”
Forty years into the band’s career, Burchill recognises the turn of the 80s as a critical time when they began to transcend their influences and develop a sound all of their own. “It’s not something you contrive, it just happened,” he says. “I think when we made New Gold Dream before that the albums had all been very different but they were all very much searching and throwing a lot of stuff against a wall and seeing what sticks whereas when we got to New Gold Dream it was a far more coherent, uniform sound and it was a very focused record.
“I think after it was released, maybe a few years later, we realised we’d just learned to write songs better.”
In an era of vinyl revivalism, Walk Between Worlds seems very much designed to fit on two, 20-minute-long sides of an LP. Burchill says that had not been the original intention – “We worked on about 18 tracks, we were also thinking that in the last few years everybody has been questioning the album format, does it exist any more? Do people listen to them?” – but latterly he and Kerr had come to feel that many modern CDs simply offered listeners too much.
“Fifteen songs on a record is way too much for people to digest,” he says. “We’ve always been advocates for keeping an album really concise and if possible try not to give anything that you would consider a filler in there. Originally the album had 11 tracks on it then right at very end we said, ‘Listen, this should be an eight-track album’ and that’s what we did. Coincidentally the first four tracks and the last four tracks are kind of different and that made us jokingly feel we had just done a vinyl album. The first four tracks are very out there, trying to prove a point, guns blazing, then it goes into a far more reflective, atmospheric path.”
The album’s closing track Sense of Discovery contains a melodic echo of Simple Minds’ 1985 hit Alive and Kicking. Burchill denies there was a conscious link between the two songs. “That part happened right at the very end of finishing the album. The track was done but we went back to it one more time; there were a few questions about the chorus as it stood, we thought it was really good but there was something about it that didn’t pay off, and then there was this little backing vocal that when we were mixing it popped out and we thought ‘That’s the chorus, that’s the part there’ so we worked on that.
“I never heard the Alive and Kicking thing at all but then my girlfriend said to me ‘That’s like Alive and Kicking’ and I had a big argument with her about it. I said, ‘That’s nothing like Alive and Kicking’ but as it turns out everybody thinks it does. It just shows you what I know.”
Simple Minds’ carefully curated recent tours and albums have been an object lesson in how a band of a certain age can come back with their integrity intact while still remaining relevant.
For Charlie Burchill it’s been an interesting ride. “Jim and I decided a long time ago that we weren’t going to think of ourselves as being some legacy thing,” he says. “We never wanted to do anything that gave a hint of trying to rest on the past. We like to say we went to work, got our sleeves rolled up. We made a point that if we do release something it has to have quality to it. There are times when you make records and you kind of know deep down you’re not hitting the mark. We said, ‘Well, let’s make a record where we at least when we’ve finished we say that’s great’. It didn’t matter if anybody else said ‘That’s terrible’, if it hits the mark for us, if we feel we’ve gone there, that’s been our criteria.
“There’s been a lot of slow work going on in terms of the profile of the band, we’ve avoided a lot of stuff that would be damaging and make you feel like a heritage act. People say it’s a comeback but we never went away, we never stopped making records or playing live, we’ve never had a large period where we weren’t doing one or the other. For us it’s always been the same thing but there’s obviously a different light on it at the moment, and there has been for the last five years, which is really great. We think it’s just down to becoming really great as a live band. I think that is one thing that underpins everything. It’s one thing to make records and be in a studio and all that but if you’re a real touring band and if you’re into it that drives everything. I think that’s where we get a lot of the loyalty and goodwill from.”
Walk Between Worlds is out today. Simple Minds play in Millennium Square, Leeds, with KT Tunstall, on August 11. The show is part of a Grandslam Tour with The Pretenders, who play at the same venue on August 3. www.simpleminds.com