Jim Kerr of Simple Minds: 'There’s been ups and downs along the way'
As the band prepare for their largest ever tour, to mark Simple Minds' 45th anniversary, Kerr finds himself marvelling at their durability. "It feels like a feat, but it also feels like we've been blessed," says the 64-year-old.
"In the very first interview we did, the question was (asked) 'What do you want out of this? Do you want to be rich and famous?' I said, 'No, we want to be a great live band' – and it's interesting I said a great live band, not just a live band. I also said, 'We want to take it around the world and we want to get a life out of that'. I mean, that was very ambitious talk from someone that had only played on gig.
"I'll let other people judge our merits as a live band, but it seems there have been plenty around the band who do consider us great live and whenever we tour they come out, and subsequent generations come along. There's been ups and downs along the way, but here we are in these arenas and we turn up and people greet us like long lost friends."
In the past decade, Kerr and his long-time songwriting partner and close friend, Charlie Burchill, have signposted the way for other musicians of a certain vintage to reacquaint themselves with different sections of their fanbase.
It started with a tour of modest-sized venues on which they played their first five, art-rock influenced albums from the late 70s and early 80s, then built up to greatest hits sets catering for those cottoned on to them in their commercial peak.
While stressing that he "never downplay(s) luck" as an important factor in what they've achieved, Kerr acknowledges that they've never been shy of hard graft too. "To do this, you have to be a type, so that was lucky to be born that type," he says, "but we have grafted and we do graft and we were really hard on ourselves. We realise what's at stake for the audience every night you go on stage.
"People in Amsterdam don't care if you were in Liverpool the night before or people in Leeds don't care if you're in Manchester tomorrow night. Tonight's the night, and they come along expecting and hoping and they merit 100 per cent. Now if we talk about a tour of the magnitude that we've just been mentioning there, to want to give 100 per cent every night it's fantastic graft but it's still that level of commitment that we think is the remit necessary."
That commitment to their art has sparked a creative renaissance too, with their three most recent studio albums – Big Music, Walk Between Worlds and Direction of the Heart – being not only well regarded by critics but also restoring them to the top 10 in several countries.
Experience, Kerr says, has taught him to stay calm where inspiration is concerned.
"Like anyone else, if you're going to have a long career it's not all going to go swimmingly well, and at times we've been up against it or even times when you yourself are not firing on all cylinders," he says. "Sometimes you think when you've written literally hundreds of songs, the voice in your head says 'Maybe you've said all you've got to say'.
"But if you can keep calm, keep quiet, things come round again and space in your life opens up where you can commit in a way that perhaps you hadn't been committing - I'm talking about recording and the writing – or you find a renewed passion and then you get some good results which then lead to a renewed confidence, and I think there's been a lot of that going on over the last few records."
This month, Simple Minds release a live version of New Gold Dream, their classic album from 1982, which was recorded last year at Paisley Abbey. Boasting songs such as Promised You a Miracle, Glittering Prize and Someone Somewhere In Summertime, it was a record that finally propelled the band into the top five in the charts, a fifth time of asking. Kerr says that New Gold Dream was one of albums that came together relatively easily.
"Sometimes you get records where there's just problems throughout - there's problems with the band, problems with the studios, problems with people you're working with - just trials and tribulations, but you huff and puff and you get there in the end. And then there's records that literally go like a dream – and that was one of them," he says.
"It felt like that every day we went in. It was quite a short record, we recorded it over four or five weeks, and even the weather was great. I've got these memories of racing to the studio the next day, wanting to listen again to the work that you'd done the night before. It wasn't so much that we thought 'We're brilliant, this is brilliant', everything just felt in the right place. I've got this notion about songs finding their moment, and it felt like everything had come together in the best way. So that was one of those records where that happens."
As enigmatic as Kerr's lyrics were on New Gold Dream, the record still managed to connect. Today, he says: "At that time Simple Minds were considered art rock, and at the very mention of that, you would do things that were kind of oblique, it was as much about atmospheres as it was focused story. It was as much about a feel, a resonance. But there's a great optimism in some of those songs, it's a mixture of light and shade. There's optimism in Promised You a Miracle and Glittering Prize if you look at the language of those things, and there's songs of great longing – Someone Somewhere in Summertime, a few darker songs like King Is White, and then there is a thunderous New Gold Dream itself, which is all about faith and blind optimism.
"As a lyric writer, it's almost like I convinced myself that there's a landscape in the music and I've got to try to find the words that match the feeling and the sentiment."
By his own estimation, Kerr was an unlikely rock star. Where he came from, he says "you had as much chance of coming from the south side of Glasgow and being a rock star as you had of being an astronaut".
"No one had done it, and certainly it wasn't a thing where you could go along to the local school and they would teach you or somebody's uncle along the road could show you how. It was terra nova. I think the amazing thing was how we got it into our heads, the amount of belief and the power of imagination."
Outside of his own close circle of friends, Kerr was also an introvert. "At school I had quite a pronounced stammer, and when you're young at school that's a big deal," he explains. "People take the p***, but then they get used to you and they don't notice it, but when you went out of your circle again people would mention it. I'm not saying I got bullied, I didn't. Back then you got bullied if you had freckles or red hair.
"It was no big deal really, but when I was young I suppose I didn't really want to speak much for obvious reasons, so in doing that, you had a conversation in your own head and what I could see was if there was such a thing as muscles in terms of imagination, having conversations in your own head you were working it out, creating your own little stories, creating your own scenarios or maybe through not speaking you were noticing things more – and I've come to think that all of that was good form to become a writer later because creativity, noticing things, details, all of that, it's important to a writer."
While David Bowie and Marc Bolan were Kerr and Burchill's "introduction to falling in love and becoming obsessed with music", it took the arrival of punk rock in 1976 to encourage them to form their first band, Johnny and the Self Abusers. "We could never see ourselves as they were, they were from another planet, but punk rock opened the doors for everyone," Kerr says. "That was more a street thing, and for the first time kids were making their own records and forming their own labels, and even outside of music but related, starting their own fanzines. It almost felt like the gates had opened, the lunatics had taken over the asylum, and it was all kids like us from Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and it was game on. I think that was a huge catalyst and inspiration to actually spring into action because up until then a lot of people spoke about one day getting a band together, but they'd never really get round to it, whereas then it was on and it seemed possible."
Kerr's parents were both music lovers and his father gave the band the money to record their first demo tape. "My dad was a labourer so it wasn't like there was a lot of extra money, and I think they couldn't quite grasp what we were doing but they could see the commitment," he says. "We were at it every day, every night, and they were impressed with that. So when I went and asked he listened and at first he said, 'Get on your bike', but two days later there it was on the table. We made the demo and I hitchhiked to London and again it was the most unlikely thing, everyone sends or drops their tapes off (at record companies) but those were picked up on. So it almost feels like the hand of fate was behind us sometimes."
The Simple Minds song Vision Thing, which opened their 2022 album Direction of the Heart, was inspired by Kerr's father. The singer temporarily moved back to Glasgow to care for his father during the last few months of his life, and he says his abiding memories of that time are tinged with laughter and sadness. "The thing was we had the music and I was in the next room from him, so it was almost like being a teenager again, and I realised pretty early in that I was writing about that, his effect on me as a kid, but I couldn't tell him that," Kerr says. "But as I was writing this song, he'd be shouting from the next room 'Turn that bloody thing down! How many times are you going to listen to that? You're driving me nuts.' Actually the language was more vulgar than that. But there was great irony in it. (He'd ask) 'Are you going to listen to that 100 times? Can't you get it right?' and (I'd reply) 'No, I can't get it right'. There was a real bittersweetness to that story."
In 1985 Simple Minds became global stars after releasing Don't You (Forget About Me) and appearing at Live Aid. Kerr says that while "no one is ever quite ready" for that level of acclaim, "in our case we were at least five or six albums and hundreds of gigs in, so we knew the lay of the land".
"I think the fact that the song Don't You (Forget About Me) came from a movie The Breakfast Club, no one could see that at the start of that year, that came out of nowhere, so that was a bit hard to take in, and no one could see Live Aid," he adds. "At that time as well, MTV was starting to be in almost every teenager's home throughout the world, so the potency of all that - the right song at the right moment at the right time, the right gig, was explosive.
"I don't think it's too much to say that Simple Minds were going through the door to the big league anyway, we already had number one albums in most places around the world, we still hadn't quite done it in America yet, that's why the record company put us in that position, they felt we were ready and they felt that with the right song at the right moment it'll happen, then it all came to fruition. But still, there was that element of 'Gee, so this is something'."
Kerr and Burchill first met at the age of eight, and almost 60 years on, they remain close friends. Kerr believes their bond is unbreakable. "It's kind of undoubted, especially now," he says. "As you can imagine, you go through periods where you get on each other's nerves, but we're so established in our relationship now we so know what to avoid. Obviously we get on tremendously well, we share so much in common, but we're also very different characters and we know how to give each other space.
"The other thing is we have such different roles in the band, so I'll sit back and take his advice or see it his way and vice versa. I can only speak for him, but he's such a great guy and I'm so fortunate to have met him and have him both as a friend but also a collaborator in the work."
As with many musicians of his era, Kerr has been working on a memoir. He says he has been "quill in hand for quite a few years and it is taking shape". In the meantime, he reveals a film on the band will be released at the end of this year. "It's quite an extensive TV documentary and that in itself sort of took over quite a bit of the memoir stuff, but I am enjoying (writing it). It's just getting the right balance in it. I'd like it to do things you would expect, but I'd like it to be humorous, I'd like it to be inspiring. I'm being quite tough on myself with it."
New Gold Dream – Live From Paisley Abbey is out on October 27. Simple Minds play at the First Direct Arena, Leeds on March 15, 2024. www.simpleminds.com