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Jim Kerr of Simple Minds: ‘Why we’re still Alive and Kicking after 40-plus years of music’

With worldwide hits, million-selling albums and high-profile appearances at some of the most significant live events of the day, it’s difficult to underestimate just how big Simple Minds were in the 1980s and early 90s.

Simple Minds live in Hamburg. Picture: Thorsten Samesch
Simple Minds live in Hamburg. Picture: Thorsten Samesch

Happily, the Scottish collective – still led by founding members singer Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill – are not only still going strong but continue, despite a dip in popularity in the early 2000s, to pack out arenas.

“We have been scratching our heads on that recently,” reveals Jim, speaking to the Cambridge Independent from his hotel room in Santander, Spain, where the band were performing on their European tour, ahead of a visit to Audley End House and Gardens on August 11.

“We certainly don’t take anything for granted, and it’s not always been on the up. If you do something for 40, 45 years there’s going to be swings and roundabouts, and also being the band of one generation – we probably were one of the bands of our generation – more’s the chance you’re going to get it in the neck from the next generation because every generation wants its own heroes and wants its own styles.

“Could I see this current situation 20 years ago? Could I see that the band would be filling arenas and still making music and even daring to feel contemporary, as opposed to just a heritage act? No, I wouldn’t have thought that would have been possible, but lo and behold... and we have to enjoy it.

“There are a lot of things involved. We work with a great team, we work bloody hard – that’s one thing. And also there is quality in what we do – we believe there’s quality – and if you have real quality you can take the blows, you can fall out of popularity, you can go out of fashion, you can do all that stuff but there’ll always be some kind of fan base.

“And you can work with that and keep it going and you can get a living and satisfaction, and then if you’re really lucky, somehow things come round the circle again and people look at you through a different lens, or you’re valued in a different way.

“You see it all the time – in fashion, in architecture – but there has to be inherent quality and you have to work hard, you have to get out and go to people.”

Simple Minds live in Hamburg. Picture: Thorsten Samesch
Simple Minds live in Hamburg. Picture: Thorsten Samesch
Simple Minds live in Hamburg. Picture: Thorsten Samesch
Simple Minds live in Hamburg. Picture: Thorsten Samesch

The 63-year-old says the current tour has been “amazing”. “We’re just starting to feel that we’re on the last lap now, because we started at the tail-end of March and we’re due to finish in the middle of August in Edinburgh.

“We’re on the home straight but reactions have been great, business has been good, but more importantly, the band sounds so strong and that above all else makes you feel good.”

As for most acts, the pandemic brought the Simple Minds globetrotting juggernaut to an abrupt halt. “We have had gaps but you’re not far off the mark,” replies Jim, when asked if the lockdown period was the longest the band had ever been without touring and performing since the original line-up first got together in 1977.

“It certainly is the weirdest gap we’ve ever had... At the peak of that thing, we were actually wondering if touring would ever come back again – people aren’t going to travel, people aren’t going to go to gigs, people aren’t going to do this, people aren’t going to do that...

“But when we got together and got out playing – not just the band, actually, the whole organisation, people that have worked with us for years – we always gave it 100 per cent. I think we were determined to give even more, if that’s possible, or certainly enjoy it even more. And there’s been a kind of feeling in the air.”

With such a large back catalogue – their first LP, Life in a Day, came out in 1979 – have the band been digging out some tracks they haven’t played in a while?

“Well, I have to say this tour is somewhat different because a lot of these are festivals and so by their very nature it’s a shorter set,” replies Jim, “but when we did the spring tour to the arenas, we were playing two sets, which was quite a lot of music, and that afforded us to do that very thing.

“We were playing over two hours. There’s maybe 60, 70 per cent of the set that is fixed and then the other 30, 40 per cent we’ll chop and change things around. We have different kinds of fans – obviously people that come to hear the big songs, but we like to play some stuff that particularly the hardcore fans might not have heard, or might enjoy hearing, and then a couple of surprises.

“I mean we actually start this tour with a song that we wrote in 1978 [Act of Love] and had never played again after 1978, and here we are all this time later starting the set with it. When I told my mate we were doing that, he said it was suicide but it’s worked very well.”

The “big songs” include such bona fide pop/rock classics such as Don’t You (Forget About Me) and Alive and Kicking. “You could add [UK number one] Belfast Child to that,” says the star, who was previously married to Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde and actress and model Patsy Kensit.

“We wrote this song called Mandela Day that particularly in Europe got a ton of radio play, as an unlikely hit, but it always works well. Then Waterfront is another one, so there’s about a handful and they’re the ones that if you play festivals, where you could say that 80 per cent of the crowd have never seen us, always go down well no matter where we’re playing.”

Does Jim have a favourite among them? “Certainly live, there’s the bombast of Waterfront... A lot of songs go down well, I can really say that, but you can see the peak ecstasy moments. With a song like that, the place goes mental, just with that rhythm.

“The whole band was asked their favourite song to play recently and they all said the same thing: ‘The first song because we’re hanging around, dying to get on and finally we’re on and playing – it’s the excitement, things are about to begin’.

“I completely understood why they would say that, however, I wasn’t trying to be contrary but my favourite song, regardless of what song it is, is always the last song! The first song is a great moment. I always take a moment to look out, but the last song, the place is going mental, you can see that people have really enjoyed themselves, and with that comes a great sense of relief.

“It’s like, ‘We did it, people are really happy – great’. And just as you’re thinking ‘fantastic’, this voice comes in your head saying, ‘You’ve got to do it all again tomorrow!’ But that sense of relief is wonderful, because it’s not us, it’s the organisation involved.

“There’s a lot of effort goes into putting these things on and there’s a lot of things that could go wrong so it really merits the recognition at the end of the night.”

Simple Minds have a new album, Direction of the Heart, due for release in October and songs from it have also featured on the tour. “We have started to creep them into the set by stealth, one by one,” notes Jim.

“Fortunately, the style of the record is that a lot of the songs are very ‘up’ songs, very big, chunky choruses so they’re the kind of things you can risk playing, even if people don’t know them, because they’ve a very instant appeal about them, and they’re working great.”

The new album was written during lockdown. “We were two weeks into what was going to be a world tour when things came crashing to a halt,” recalls Jim. “At least we had music to turn to – ideas up our sleeves and in the end that is what happened. We ended up spending the time working on the new record so that something productive, or quite substantial, came out of the frustration of lockdown.”

He continues: “Charlie [Burchill] came to Sicily. I have a place there, and we were set up together, and then from time to time you could still travel about. There was a studio in Germany where we would go and we would work with some of the producers and such, but by and large it was Charlie and I. Of the time spent on the record, about 70 per cent of it was Charlie and I in the room together.”

Simple Minds. Picture: Dean Chalkley
Simple Minds. Picture: Dean Chalkley

Is there anywhere Jim would like to perform where he and the band haven’t yet been? “Everyone was wanting to play in China at one point, I don’t know if that’s still quite the case right now, for various reasons,” he says, “but we have played all over the world and we still do. We’re already planning tours next year for America and Australia...

“I’d like to play in Japan more than we do – we have played there – I just really, really enjoy being there.”

Jim has always enjoyed spending time on the continent – he calls Taormina, Sicily home – and this love of Europe was solidified at an early age when he and Charlie set out to hitch-hike to London in the 70s with the intention of attending a Sex Pistols gig.

A truck driver said he was going to Paris, however, and asked if the pair would like to go there instead. They ended up spending a month hitchhiking through France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

“We’ve always been wanderers, that’s for sure,” says the Glasgow-born singer, “and that lust for travel... this was the age before RyanAir and easyJet, where you could go for a tenner, it was just a sense of other things out there. It wasn’t a rejection of what we had because we loved growing up in Glasgow. I mean we didn’t know anything else so for us it was the centre of the world.

“I went to Italy when I was 13 with the school and I can remember imagining living there. I thought, ‘When I’m older, maybe’. It seems ridiculous but that’s the way things have panned out. I do live there now.

“Most ex-pats who live in Italy, stay in the north and Tuscany,” he explains, “which is beautiful, but I found a different kind of soul in Sicily. It’s really ancient and the sea and all of that got under my skin and that was more than 20 years ago. Now I’m fully resident there.”

That said, Jim does pop back to Scotland regularly. “The irony is, I like to go back there in the summer where it’s cool,” he notes. “I’m the opposite – I go the other way! I love Scotland; I love the landscape there. I’m a hiker and that’s what I do.”

[Read more: Suzanne Vega interview: ‘It was as if we had forgotten how to be public humans’, Andy McCluskey of OMD: ‘We can still deliver a really enjoyable show’]

A formidable live act, Simple Minds delivered memorable sets at major events including Live Aid in Philadelphia in 1985 and at the Mandela Day Concert, celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, in 1988 at Wembley Stadium. They made a brief, two-song appearance at a celebration for Mandela’s 90th birthday in Hyde Park in 2008.

Simple Minds live in Hamburg. Picture: Thorsten Samesch
Simple Minds live in Hamburg. Picture: Thorsten Samesch

“You look back at Live Aid and it’s such a historical moment, in terms of popular culture, and you could feel it at the time,” remembers Jim. “It was the biggest televised event ever, but you didn’t ever think that nearly 40 years on people would still talk about it...

“Funnily enough, all those landmark things were terribly exciting, but the high in the late 70s, early 80s was going to places for the first time, still learning our trade, playing in the back woods of Germany and Holland...

“This will sound exceptionally like rose-tinted glasses, and it kind of is, but I’m just trying to explain the feeling of turning up to a place and there’d be two men and a dog, and at the end of the night the promoter would say, ‘I’ve never seen two men and a dog go crazy like that! You’ve got something, don’t give up’.

“There was a great feeling of ‘this thing might happen’. The moment preceding the big time, those naive years, they were sweet.”

Simple Minds will be appearing at Audley End House and Gardens, as part of the Heritage Live series of concerts, on Thursday, August 11. Visit heritagelive.net/whats-on/simpleminds. For more on the band, go to simpleminds.com.

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