Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr,
The TVD Interview

The ‘80s nostalgia circuit is the stuff of Jim Kerr’s nightmares. The co-founder and frontman of Simple Minds has been on a creative tear, breathing new life into his band with a brand new album that’s already being hailed as one of the best of their nearly forty-year existence. Big Music, out digitally on November 4 in the US (and November 24 on vinyl), is the band’s sixteenth album and is already garnering heaps of praise and comparisons to their experimental, moody, synth rock roots.

The Glaswegian band has undergone many personnel changes over the years, reinventing themselves out of necessity, evolving creatively as all good bands should, and doing their best to escape from the orbit of their “breakthrough” hit, the iconic ‘80s anthem “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” While that song may have cemented Simple Minds’ place in popular culture, the band’s storied career spans sixteen albums—six of which were recorded before a single scene of The Breakfast Club was filmed. 

That the melancholic, new wave sound they helped pioneer is popular again is evident in Big Music collaborator Iain Cook of fellow Scottish alternative rockers, Chvrches. Thanks in part to this new blood, Jim Kerr feels that Big Music represents a musical career that’s coming full circle. Critics are already declaring it the worthy successor to their innovative classic albums; that’s no surprise, either, as Big Music taps into the collective talents of Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call producers Steve Hillage, Steve Osborne, and Andy Wright.

Jim Kerr is ready to add another fascinating chapter to Simple Minds’ story. Big Music feels like the work of a band emerging from a commercial and creative lull. Jim had much to say about the album’s genesis, his excitement about a new outpouring of creativity, and the journey he’s been on to overcome a strange sort of success. 

Are you still reeling from winning the Q Inspiration Award on Wednesday?

I’m trying to be blasé, but I’m not really succeeding. Just done a victory lap around the neighborhood. [Laughs] It was a lovely afternoon. To get any attention, to get any credit at all… is nice. It was nice to get an “inspiration” award. I guess that sort of means that people not only like what you do, but it made them go and do what they do. And that’s cool.

And to hear the tribute that James Dean Bradfield [frontman of the Manic Street Preachers] gave you must have been an inspirational experience, too.

Yeah, it was! First of all, James has been a real champion of our cause for many years. He kind of squared the circle the other day because my kids, growing up, where huge fans of Manic Street Preachers, and couldn’t believe that James liked us—they couldn’t believe that anyone liked us! [Laughs] That was a cool thing in the eyes of my kids.

He did a great job the other day. I believe my guitar player, Charlie Burchill, and James were last seen about four o’clock in the morning somewhere and nobody has seen either of them since! [Laughs] And there’s about the same size, and one’s got a heavy Welsh accent and one’s got a heavy Scottish accent, so that’s going to be quite a scene. [Laughs]

Your new album is your sixteenth and your first in five years, which I think would surprise many Americans who may only know you for “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”…

Sure, yeah, but that was a great thing. But yeah, you’re right, there are people who know Simple Minds from day one and there’s people that know Simple Minds from those big MTV years. And that’s all they know. Certainly, that was a frustration, but we’re a lot more relaxed about stuff now. You meet someone—a taxi driver, say—and he’ll ask what you’re doing, and I’ll say I’m in a band, and he’ll want to know the name of the band, I’ll tell him and he’ll say, “Oh, I love that song!” [I’ll think], “what about the other two hundred and sixty?”

But you know what? That’s fine. Nobody owes you anything. If they like your one tune, that’s kind of cool as well.

Did you feel like you were trying too hard after that point? Did you feel a lot of pressure?

Well, yeah there was. Just to give you a brief background, we knocked back the idea of doing that Breakfast Club thing three or four times and didn’t get it. We were working on stuff that we thought was superior, to be honest. When we got the demo of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”… it wasn’t bad. It certainly wasn’t anything like how it turned out in the end. It wasn’t the big anthem that it was. But it kind of sounded okay, but we weren’t jumping up and down [about it]. So, we didn’t jump.

It took talking to John Hughes, the director, and Keith Forsey, who produced [the music]; they gave it much more context. And we liked them. We did it thinking we’d be just one of many acts and one of many songs, and who knows if anyone will get to hear this thing? But there you go, it got all the way to the top of the Billboard charts. And it’s then you’re going, “Oh, God, how do we follow this monster?”

We had a song called “Alive and Kicking” that came next, and it was our own and we loved it, but it only got to a low number two on the Billboard charts so it was a failure. [It actually reached number three.

I can’t help thinking about Simple Minds in context with musicians like the Finn Brothers who have such tremendous success in the UK and Australia and elsewhere, but couldn’t really get the same kind of traction in the US. I’ve always wondered what that divide is really all about.

Well, to be honest, what happened had to do with American radio at the time. It was so much formatted then to… they were still playing Zeppelin and they were still playing The Who and all that stuff, so it was hard to get on rock radio. I mean, thankfully college radio—which, in its own way could still do a great job—but it was very hard to get on rock radio. In fact, we didn’t get on it until MTV came along and it was that that made radio broaden out.

By then, we were well into our fifth and sixth albums, whereas in other places… they had a more egalitarian attitude towards music. We could get on the radio in Australia and we could get on radio in Canada… But there are two sides to the coin.

The other thing was that America is vast. We went down to Australia an unknown band and a month later we were on top of the charts! There are really only four or five cities there. But America, you’ve got to go, you’ve got to do it again and again; there’s a real work ethic needed, but not just work ethic. There’s costs and quite a lot of the bands [at that time] were in debt and just couldn’t afford to go back again and again and again—unless you got that breakthrough. Maybe you had to go ten times before you got that breakthrough! People get down, and you think it will never happen.

Speaking of being on the road constantly, you were inspired to write the new songs from being on the road for a very long time, playing your greatest hits and older, more obscure tracks. Can you talk about this a bit?

Yeah, in the last five years, the band has been very active on the road particularly. In a way, it’s been a parallel existence because the very nature of being out, and as you said we were supporting our “greatest hits.” But we also did two [tours] prior to that that were like “non-hits” tours. We played songs from those first five albums, which were the albums before we got our commercial breakthrough.

So, by the very definition, you go on and play the songs from your back catalogue—your history—and that’s all about looking back and nostalgia and stuff. But we, separate from that whenever there were weeks or months free, we were writing, recording… essentially working on what we see as the new chapter of the story. It’s very important for our band to have a new chapter. I know there’s a lot of—call them whatever you want—“classic” acts or “heritage” acts or whatever the horrible terms are. They’ve given up writing or they don’t want to write because they think the people that are going to come to the gigs aren’t gonna want to hear any new stuff. Whether that’s true or not is another thing.

For Simple Minds, we love to play our story. We’ll play songs from all over. When we go on stage, essentially what we’re saying is, “This is who we are, this is what we’ve done with our lives, this is our music.” On any given night, we’ll play songs from any given period. But we don’t want to be just a museum piece. We just don’t want to be that. We’re not that because, since we were fourteen, we’ve been creative people. We’re as much songwriters as we are performers. To stop doing that would be like losing a creative limb.

So, the last few years have been this sort of parallel existence. But over the last year we started, one by one, putting in the songs as we’d completed them for the record, feeling confident that they would stand up, but needing the validation. And we’re getting the validation. It wasn’t like we were doing a set of Simple Minds classics and then the momentum of the set would plummet as we played this obscurity. [Laughs] Sure, people didn’t know the song, but by the reaction at the end… you could tell there it was like, “I don’t know it, but I’m into it.” And that was very encouraging.

It must have been encouraging, too, to know that the songs that found there way onto Big Music were being so well received in real time, as you were writing them.

Yeah, I mean it’s all on the up right now. It feels wonderful—those periods where you’re just on a roll. You’re trying stuff and thinking, jeeze, it’s working! People are getting the same as we got—they’re getting it. It’s working.

I was very moved by “Honest Town,” as I lost my own mother to cancer a few years ago, too. What was it like to work within the past and the present on that song—with Iain Cook (of Chvrches) and the same producers (Andy Wright, Steve Hillage, and Steve Osborne) who worked on Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call?

Well, you’re right, it was amazing. What happened was I’d come back to Glasgow for my mother’s last couple of months. A mutual friend had introduced me to Iain and it was actually my mum that said, “What are you doing moping around here? Go and do some work!” [Laughs] I didn’t want to upset her, so I’d go to Iain’s place. Iain’s workplace was three doors down from where Simple Minds used to rehearse! [Laughs] So, even physically it was like going back full circle.

And “Honest Town” is so evocative of what that experience must have been like.

Yeah, it was magic. They were [my mother’s] words—she said the phrase, “honest town.” What happened was the week before she died, she’d been really not well and not able to move. And then it was like a miracle; one day she came downstairs, fully dressed. She had a gleam in her eyes. My dad and I were sitting downstairs and she said, “I want to go out.” Unfortunately, there was a snowstorm outside. Dad said, “You can’t go out!” The radio had been saying not to go out unless it was impeditive and all that.

But as we were talking, the sun came out! It was snowing and sunny—it was one of these mad moments. [Laughs] And I said, “Come on, let’s go out!” And she said, “I want to go into town. I’m going to the Christmas dance next weekend, and I’ve got to get something to wear.” It just so happened that the drive that we went from the neighborhood that we were in to the center of town was the very path of her life and my life—where she grew up, where she went to school, where she got married, where she had her first factory job. She was in great form, saying how much she loved her life and how much she loved the town, and she came up with that phrase… it was a magical journey. I was so glad I was able to do it with her.

When I sat down with Iain the same week—I’d never met him until the week before—he said, “I was listening to your earlier records and I really love them. I think I’ve got a couple of things that might be in that bag.” One of the things he played me was the original melody for what became “Honest Town.”

I seem to recall that Glasgow had, and has, a very vibrant record store scene. How did that figure into your early days as a musician?

Well, you could never forget it! First of all, both Charlie and myself—although we went to school together, we weren’t in the same class. So, we didn’t really hang out, but I remember meeting him in the record store. Then, he’d skip school and I’d skip school. The record store was where everyone would skip school. Our first ever manager for the band was a guy called Bruce Findlay and his family had chain of four or five record stores in Scotland called Bruce’s, appropriately enough! We were always looking for imports—we were into the whole culture of it.

Do you remember the first record that you bought?

I do! The first record that I bought from a store was Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie. I got a Saturday job; I used to clean the back store of a butcher’s shop—you can imagine what that was like! [Laughs] I’ve been a vegetarian ever since!

I had actually bought a record from a guy in class previous to that, which was my first real record, and that was a T. Rex album called Electric Warrior.

Those are some pretty good first albums!

They were the beginning of something, both of them.

Since you were part of a very vibrant pop scene, arguably the last great pop scene, do you feel pop music is as important or relevant today as it was during Simple Minds’ heyday?

The culture is so different. Maybe if you’re a thirteen or fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, then probably you’d say yeah, it is. But nevertheless… yesterday in the airport in London, the number of people who came up to me and showed me their phone and said, “Look, I’ve got your album!” Now, people are into it in a different way. The gigs we do, there’s more and more people coming to them with their kids. It’s just moved on. It’s kind of dizzying in a sense.

People ask me how I think the industry’s changed from when we were at the beginning. It’s changed beyond recognition. Although, thankfully, in essence what we do has not changed at all because…what do we do? We look for a melody, we look for a lyric, we look for an atmosphere, we try and pull together and record it and take it around to the world. That’s what we’ve been trying to do for forty years, and it’s still the essence of what we’re trying to do. And thank God, because the fact that that hasn’t changed gives us a bit of a handrail to hold onto.

Simple Minds’ brand new full length release, Big Music arrives in stores tomorrow, November 4th via Caroline International. 

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