Jim Kerr Sustains Simple Minds with a ‘Walk Between Worlds’

Courtesty of BMG

When the time comes to record new music, veteran bands often run the risk of being trapped trying to replicate their past successes to a sonic T by playing it safe and serving up a relatively pale companion to the recognizable sound they’ve established over their careers.

It’s something that was clearly permeating the brainwaves of Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr and his songwriting foil, guitarist/keyboardist Charlie Burchill, as the pair began to construct the tracks that would comprise their new studio album, the aptly named Walk Between Worlds (BMG).

“You want to keep the essence of the band and put the stuff you’re known for upfront, but at the same time, you only want it to be retro to a point,” admits Kerr (kneeling in the band photo). “You want it to feel like it’s got a contemporary heartbeat and it’s an extension of the story — but it’s not the same old story. Knowing that, you’re damned if you change, and you’re damned if you don’t. Change — but don’t change too much! Change, but only just enough.”

To that end, Simple Minds show they’ve changed exactly enough over the course of Worlds — eight tracks on the standard edition, 11 on the deluxe version — by deftly walking the fine line between delivering uplifting singalong anthems (the instantly seductive tone of lead track “Magic”) and pushing the aural envelope (the synth-and-guitar-meshed forward thrust of “The Signal and the Noise”).

I got on the line with Kerr, 58, to discuss how he’s developed his personal listening skills, why recording a string section at Abbey Road helped him come full circle from when he “froze” in that storied studio in 1979, and the secret to the band’s longevity. With the sweet sound of Worlds, Simple Minds have succeeded in transporting the listener somewhere else, making sure there’s not even the slimmest chance we’ll ever forget about them.

Mike Mettler: Since the core Worlds album has eight songs, I have a feeling you guys very much thought about presenting it in vinyl terms.
Jim Kerr: We certainly came to that, yes. In the recent era, albums just got too long. I don’t care who you are — I don’t think anyone has 12 great, quality songs to go with, so if you can make those 42 or 43 minutes count, then I think you’re onto something. And if you can give the listeners a flow — something akin to what we used to think of as Side 1 and Side 2 — then that just seems to work.

A friend just sent me a text last night with a picture of his daughter, who is something like 10 years old, in the record shop buying vinyl! She wanted vinyl records, and he was buying her a vinyl copy of The Pretenders’ first album. [Kerr and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders were married for a stretch in the ’80s.]

Mettler: Oh, nice. He made a good call with that choice! (Kerr chuckles) Your voice is in fantastic shape on this album. What’s the secret of keeping at the top of your vocal game?

Kerr: I’m one of these rare things — I’m a Scotsman who doesn’t drink! (both laugh) For years, I didn’t go to soundchecks because once I started a tour and had a few dates under my belt, I wanted to save my voice. But I go to soundchecks all the time now, mainly because I wanna listen to the house PA. And if it sounds amazing, I get them to play records over them!

Mettler: So you’ll play artists like Genesis or T-Rex over the PA before a show, because you know how they’re supposed to sound?
Kerr: Yeah! It could be that, or even some vocal music from a Welsh choir. T-Rex is definitely gonna get played, as is Bryan Ferry, and The Velvet Underground. When the audience comes in, I want to be listening to “Let’s Dance” [David Bowie’s big 1983 hit].

Sometimes, when Charlie [Burchill] and I are debating about something on a song, I’ll go, “I know what that’s gonna do coming out of the PA! Never mind the speakers here in the studio — once that track starts over the PA, we’re already in overdrive before we’ve even gotten to the verse.” I know how that first 60 seconds will be an event for people.

Mettler: Tell me about the string section that’s on “Barrowland Star” and “Walk Between Worlds.” It was recorded at Abbey Road, right?
Kerr: It was indeed — and it was great, because we all know what Abbey Road means in terms of rock and roll culture. It’s the temple.

However, Beatles aside, it was quite something to be back in that room. Simple Minds made our first album in 1979 [Life in a Day], and our producer John Leckie, who came up through Abbey Road during the studio’s heyday himself, thought it would be a nice treat for us. We were recording in the countryside at the time, and he thought it would be nice to take five days and go to Abbey Road. We cut out a bit of the recording budget so we could go do that.

We were kids at the time, all of us about 19, when we went there. Half the band were just so inspired, and the other half, of which I was one, just froze, because it was overwhelming. Suddenly, your songs seem so little. Someone would point out, “Yeah, that mellotron over there — The Beatles used it on ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.’” And you’re standing there thinking, ‘‘‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ — well, why does anyone need my songs?”

So, I didn’t have great memories of Abbey Road then. I don’t say that as a criticism of Abbey Road. Back then I just couldn’t handle it, but going in there this time, and seeing all those beautiful musicians playing those incredible melodies in that room — it just felt great.

Mettler: Was that a thought you had before production began, to go back there? Who came up with the idea?
Kerr: I just thought “Barrowland Star” needed to go up another gear to be more cinematic, so I think I was the one who pushed for the strings. The song was there, but I knew that a guy named Peter John Vettese, who’s a good keyboard-arranger, could bring more cinema to it. We didn’t have to be afraid of it being that way. Sometimes with the strings it can feel a little pompous and overblown, and that can make you back off. But I thought, “No, this music can handle it. And the record can handle it, as we progress through the album, to get to that peak.”

Charlie already had great “stringy” parts on it that were good, but the real deal is the real deal. The tracks needed to be a little more “event,” and I think I was the one who started to badger them about that.

Mettler: That was a good idea to bring “Barrowland Star” into a new dimension, since it’s a song about the history of you guys getting together as a band in that special location.
Kerr: That’s right. I mean, it’s kind of like the Roseland Ballroom of Glasgow, as it goes back to the big band/jazz era of our parents and our grandparents. Some of our parents met while dancing there! (chuckles) So many people in Glasgow were born out of that place, where the people who worked hard liked to go dance and sing and forget their troubles on a Friday or Saturday night. Barrowland was the place. And we grew up knowing about it. People just spoke about it.

In the ’70s, it fell into disrepute — violence and gangs, and it closed down. It became quite derelict. And then in the ’80s, someone had the idea of perhaps opening it again, and they approached us. We were the first to play it again and we filmed a video there [“Waterfront,” in 1983], and then we did a few gigs. And lo and behold, it’s gone on and on and on. Today, if you’d ask the guys from bands like the Foo Fighters, Barrowland is one of “those” gigs.

Mettler: You’re taking us to “Utopia” quite literally, as you say in that song.
Kerr: [Worlds producer] Andy Wright asked me, “Is this a drug song? ‘Putting the needle down’?” And I’m like, “No, no, this is about music transcending me — particularly as a kid, that transcendental place music would take you to when you put on those albums, where they take you to another place.” Whether it was David Bowie’s Space Oddity (1969) or Patti Smith’s Horses (1975) or James Brown — it was about that trip you went on with the music. It took you to this utopia, so this song is an homage to, praise to, and a poem to all that.

Mettler: When you connect with music in that way it takes you right back to when and where you first experienced it, like the way you took us there with your cover of Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” on Sparkle in the Rain (1984). There’s a clear lineage of connection with past and present like that in a song like “Utopia.”
Kerr: I like the word you say there, “lineage,” because there certainly is that. We still are inspired now as we were back then by our original influences. When we’re making a record, we’ll still reference The Doors, Bowie, the strings on T-Rex records, and Prince. We’ll talk about whoever — these people we grew up with, and also our contemporaries. We are equally influenced by them now, and, in turn, we have somehow managed to influence others — and that’s great.

It’s funny — a couple of nights ago, this friend in Australia sent me a link and he said, “I need a bit of a scientist, an arbiter for this.” He had found a piece of music that was on one of these TV channels as background music and he said, “These guys have been ripping you off!” It was a sample off one of our earlier records, “Premonition” [from Simple Minds’ second album, 1979’s Real to Real Cacophony], and he’d tried to disguise it.

I’m tellin’ you — who’da known? I put it on, and I didn’t care where he got it from. All I knew was, I wanted to play it 20 times! (chuckles) Maybe they had taken some of the genetics, but they had made their own thing. I stopped thinking about anything. I was just like, “Yeah, play it again — play it again!” I don’t even know what it was called; it was one of those anonymous DJ things. The point is, listening to the music, and how it affected my routines physically and chemically — that’s utopia.

Mettler: Amen to that. You guys have worked with so many great producers over the years — Bob Clearmountain [1985’s Once Upon a Time], Steve Lillywhite [1984’s Sparkle in the Rain], and Trevor Horn [1989’s Street Fighting Years], just to name a few. You always have a knack for working with guys who know how to get the best sound for your recordings.
Kerr: Oh, yeah, and Jimmy Iovine too [who co-produced Once Upon a Time]. Really top-notch. Every time we’re working on a song, at certain points, I’ll be hearing something I hear through the ears of these guys. I’ll think, “Ahh, I know what Clearmountain would have thought, for sure. I know what Jimmy woulda said.”

And Jimmy always said the same thing: “That was great. Is it finished?” You’d go (uses higher register), “Finished? What do you mean, finished? Of course it’s finished!” He’d go, “Really?” Then you’d go, “Nooo. . .” — and you’d realize you’d been kidding yourself all along, and that maybe he’s right. You tell yourself, “He’s only 1 percent right” — but he’s 20 percent right. So you go back and work on it again.

It’s stuff like that. And John Leckie too — these guys were all great masters. They were real great masters to be around. Just when you mentioned that list there, I’m like, “Wow!” You record with them, and you still live with the songs. They go on. They’re not frozen in aspic.

Mettler: Standing on the shoulders of giants, if we want to put it another way. Finally, Jim, to wrap things up — you’re now looking at celebrating 40 years of Simple Minds. Did you really think you’d still be doing this gig all this time later?
Kerr: Back when you’re only 18 or 19, you don’t even know what next year’s gonna be. What I can tell you is the ambition then is the same now — it’s exactly the same. We wanted to write songs, we wanted to record them, and we wanted to take them around the world — and by doing so, we became a great live band. And 40 years later, we’re fortunate inasmuch that we’re still being allowed to get out there and rise to that challenge. People are coming to the show thinking, “Ahh, can they still cut it? Is it gonna be what it was?” And you just wanna be better than they think you’re gonna be.

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