Simple Minds are back with “Big Music,” a bold new album that rivals any previous work from their long career. With atmospheric keyboard parts that harken back to their early music as well as tracks with a bigger rock sound, it’s very much an extension of their entire body of work. While Simple Minds are not trying to recreate the past, they’re also not afraid to draw from it. Their creative spark is as strong as ever, and there are absolutely no weak tracks on “Big Music.”
In a phone interview, frontman Jim Kerr talked about the new album, adapting to a changing music industry, the legacy of “Don’t You Forget About Me” and more.
Some of the tracks on “Big Music” remind me of early Simple Minds. Do you feel the album was influenced by the “5×5 Live” tour a few years back, where you performed music from the first five Simple Minds albums?
Jim Kerr: “I’m sure it did inform some of the new stuff. It was an interesting project, going back to do those gigs based on the first records. It was much more pleasurable than we thought it would be. But the surprising thing was that a lot of the material seemed to have a sort of contemporary shine about it. We thought it would be like going back to an old jacket that maybe didn’t fit anymore. But we really enjoyed doing it, and I think for sure it did [influence the new album.] Although, you can’t go back to the past. That was then, the world has changed, technology has changed, we’ve changed. But you can tune into some of the essence, and I think that came through on the new record.”
Being the two remaining original members of Simple Minds, are you and Charlie [Burchill] the main songwriters?
Jim Kerr: “Charlie and I are still at the core, but we’ve certainly fleshed it out. And that’s been a great bonus. I mean, in the early days of Simple Minds, it was mostly us, and gradually everyone else began putting in ideas and coming up with stuff. Andy Gillespie, the current keyboardist who we still call ‘the new guy’ even though he’s been with us now for twelve or thirteen years, he came up with at least two of the tracks on the album.”
What made you cover The Call’s “Let the Day Begin”? What was your approach to it?
Jim Kerr: “It’s quite neat how that turned out. This time last year, we were in the States. It was the first time we’d been there in ten years. Just prior to going out, we were talking about the visit and reminiscing about when we played in the States in the 80s. I think we did two tours with The Call. Subsequently, not only did we become big fans of them and their music, but Michael [Been] became a really good friend. He was actually a bit of a mentor in some ways, because he was a bit older than us and knew his way around.
“Anyway, sadly Michael passed away a few years ago and we were reminiscing about it and thought it was a shame that he wasn’t there. And we thought ‘hang on, maybe it would be a nice touch to do one of his songs?’ because then at least a bit of his work would be there. So we started messing around with ‘Let the Day Begin’ in particular. Michael was also a fan of Simple Minds, and particularly a fan of a song of ours called ‘Waterfront.’ I remember him once saying, with a glint in his eye, ‘I’ve got this new tune and it’s not a million miles away from the kind of feel you got going on ‘Waterfront.’’ Indeed, the song he played for us was ‘Let the Day Begin,’ which we loved.
“So we thought, let’s learn ‘Let the Day Begin’ and play it as an encore or something when the pressure is off. But it felt so good in the rehearsal that we didn’t put it in encore, we put it bang in the middle of the set. It went down a storm with people who knew it, and also with people who didn’t know it. The very next day after we got back from the States, we had two days free in London and said ‘let’s go in and put this down,’ again not knowing if it would make it on the album or what it would be. We just knew it was sounding good, and are delighted that it made it onto the album.”
During the heyday of music video, Simple Minds utilized them quite a bit. Looking back, what are your thoughts on the medium? Do you feel it is still relevant?
Jim Kerr: “To be really honest, like anyone else we wanted to be on MTV. When MTV came along, it took over everything. It was on in every bar in the world and we thought that we’d love to be on that. So there was no doubt of the importance of having a video. But I have to say that it was always a frustration for us; I wish we were one of those David Byrne or Peter Gabriel types who seemed to take to the video thing like ducks to water. With us, it was always putting the song in someone else’s hands. Obviously, you saw their previous work and were involved with the ideas to a degree, but you never knew what you were getting until they handed it over to you. And that was always weird, because in everything else that we did we were in control. So it was always a nerve-wracking experience, and the results were a bit hit or miss.
“Today, I think it all helps, really. I think it’s important. When it’s good it’s great, and when it’s nothing special, then it’s still good. Between the band site, Facebook and social media, people have a voracious appetite for content. Whether it’s a video of an interview or a clip of an acoustic set or a fan video, you’d rather have it there than not.”
What was the timeframe of making the new album? Did you have a strong sense as to what you wanted to accomplish with it?
Jim Kerr: “We made it really hard for ourselves in a sense. If you’re only going to do an album every four or five years, which seems to be the cycle of a band like us, you really have to believe that it is full of quality. Anyone in any other business would say ‘well that’s a given,’ that’s for sure. But these days, when do you hear albums that are full of quality from first track to last? It’s a rare thing. Within our own context, over the past four or five years we probably worked on between thirty to forty song ideas. The very fact that we were working on them made us feel that there was something good about them, but ultimately the difference between good and great is vast. We worked on stuff, we dumped it, we came up with new stuff, we honed things, we wrote with different people, went back to the drawing board.
“And that was all going on in parallel with touring a lot. It was interesting because a lot of the touring was about the nostalgia, or the past story of the band. We were playing the songs from those first five albums and then we had a greatest hits jaunt that took us about eighteen months. The very nature of that was all about the past, and that’s fine. We were happy to go out every night and play the story of the band. But it was always important to us to always be working on a new chapter of that story. Touring over the past year we started to put in new songs to test them out and hone them. So it’s been a sort of on/off work for the last four years, I would say.
“When it comes to recording and you’re thinking about an album, in the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘well what are the boxes that we want to tick here?’ You have to think about that stuff, but at the same time you’re weary because you could be chasing your tail. We can’t really think about radio, because everyone knows that radio is not quite the thing that it was. We needed something that resonated to the great creative period of the past, something that felt contemporary, something that felt very full blooded that you could feel the commitment in, all of those things. It’s easier said than done. We had to be quintessentially Simple Minds, yet somehow the best Simple Minds have been for a long long time.”
I remember really liking the Utah Saints cover of “New Gold Dream” from a while back, and more recently a few people have sampled Simple Minds music. What are your thoughts on other artists utilizing your work like this?
Jim Kerr: “I forgot about that [Utah Saints cover]. It was neat! The first thing is that you take it as a compliment, in the sense that we’re still inspired by the people who first inspired us. We’re still inspired by The Doors, David Bowie, Roxy Music and all of those people. Artists who through loving their music, the extension was to pick up guitars and keyboards and try to do some of it ourselves. It is a compliment, and it’s always nice to hear and see what people have done.”
In America, Simple Minds will probably always be associated most with “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” even though it’s not necessarily representative of the band. What are you feelings towards that song, and have they changed over the years?
Jim Kerr: “Well, America is the only place where it’s like that. We’re a lot more relaxed about it now. In fact, it’s kind of an honor to have a song like that. We used to call it the ‘black hit from space,’ after that Human League track. We just didn’t know where it came from. It was done so effortlessly on our part that we were initially rather embarrassed by the success of it. At least as far as the States go, we managed to follow it up chart-wise with ‘Alive and Kicking,’ which got to number two or something. It felt that at least we weren’t a one hit wonder there.
“But listen, most people would give their right arm for even one hit. We realize especially now that the song, particularly in America, really means something to … I was going to say means something to a generation, but it really means something to a few generations now. And of course it ties into John Hughes and those movies. It’s become a kind of iconic thing. But that apart, it still sounds like a great record when it comes on. We were always a little ambivalent about it because first of all we didn’t think we merited the kind of success that it got, and for us we always felt it was a little bit ‘Simple Minds light.’”
Obviously you have a large existing fanbase, but with all the changes the music industry has undergone, do you find it challenging getting the attention of new potential fans?
Jim Kerr: “It’s definitely difficult for anyone to get anyone’s time these days, because the world has changed and moved on. People spend more time looking at the screen of their phone. People used to sit in their rooms staring at the album sleeve and could tell you every word, tell you the engineer or who did backing vocals. Those days are gone. But there are definitely bonuses. We only tickled the United States last time we were there; I think we did about a dozen gigs, but it was a blast. The places were packed. They weren’t just there for one song, people were freaking out when we were playing various things. There are still a huge lot of people who were in college in America when sort of cult-y records were getting played on radio there. But everywhere we play in the world, people come, and they come with their kids. I see people with their kids who are fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.
“The whole online thing, the evolution of the internet, has been in so many ways fantastic for a band like us. We are able to reach people and have them discover us. It’s all up for grabs. [In terms of getting new fans] maybe you get a song on a soundtrack, maybe you get a song in an advert, or you just go out on the road and play. We’ve tried to embrace it all. We really work the website and the Facebook pages. I like the interaction, it’s exciting.”
What are the future plans for Simple Minds? Will you be touring America again to support the new album?
Jim Kerr: “We would love to get over there and play some of this new stuff. I’m pretty confident that it’s going to happen. To anyone there who’s been a fan: if we haven’t played in your neck of the woods for a long long time, I apologize for that. But keep the faith.”
For more info on Simple Minds, be sure to visit simpleminds.com.