A Long Walk Between Worlds: Jim Kerr on Simple Minds' New Album and 40-Year Musical Legacy
Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr joins us to discuss the new Simple Minds album Walk Between Worlds, and to reflect on his four decades in one of the most influential bands to emerge from the UK post-punk scene of the late '70s and early '80s.
A Walk Between Worlds
2 February 2018
It's already been a long and winding road for Simple Minds, but to their fans' massive delight they continue embarking on new journeys. With 40 years of music history behind them, the venerable Scottish band soldiers on, as committed to their craft as ever. And why shouldn't they? Their last album, 2014's Big Music, and the just-released Walk Between Worlds, both stand proudly alongside any of their best studio work. Simple Minds' live performances remain an intensely emotional musical spectacle, not to be missed. No, they are not an "80s" band surviving solely on past triumphs. Simple Minds still create vital and viscerally potent new music, while also celebrating a vast and diverse catalog stretching all the way back to their debut album, Life in a Day, released in April 1979.
Jim Kerr was gracious enough to join us recently to discuss Simple Minds' new album, and also his many years as the band's singer, lyricist and, along with guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Burchill, their primary creative force. Kerr is clearly enthusiastic about Walk Between Worlds, and understandably so -- it's an exhilarating blend of Simple Minds' grand arena-rock expansiveness and their more introspective influences. Sprinkled throughout are sonic glimmers and twists of sound that touch on every aspect of their career, while never lapsing into lazy nostalgia. Walk Between Worlds is immediate and contemporary, a deft fusion of all the elements that have made Simple Minds one of the most important and influential bands of the last four decades.
Kerr may be a music industry veteran with 18 Simple Minds studio albums under his belt, but the years haven't eroded that familiar thrill of excitement tinged with trepidation that he's always felt when unveiling a new release to fans. He says it's "just the natural hope that people get from it what you get from it because, you know, even after all these years, even after doing all the work, you just never know. Ya never know with what you've put out if people are gonna feel it the same way. I mean, even sometimes it can be the right idea and just the wrong timing. It's just, 'Nah, this isn't the kind of thing people want to hear just now.'"
Kerr knows of what he speaks. Simple Minds have enjoyed huge hits, and endured the disappointment of albums that have largely been ignored except by die-hards. He is also mindful that while he wants to acknowledge the band's history, he doesn't want to be leashed to it. "Next week is 40 years from when we played our first gig," Kerr says. "Someone said to me, 'What's the record sound like?' I said, 'I hope it doesn't sound like we've been doing this for 40 years!'" On that point, Simple Minds both fail and succeed. Their various tendencies that span the decades weave through each song on Walk Between Worlds, but they also capture a freshness and full-throttle energy that is every bit as dynamic as any "current" band borne out of the last decade.
That's exactly what Kerr and his collaborators were after. "You know, you just want to make sure that you're really engaged," he says. "You kinda want it to be -- well, it's not classic Simple Minds, but there's twists in it, it's contemporary. It's not a parody. You know, all of these things would never come into your mind on your first two or three records because you haven't even evolved yet. Now when you're older ya go, ya know, thin line between classic and parody!" Walk Between Worlds walks that line with precision, epic and reflective of the band's legacy while bristling with rock and roll energy, never for a moment feeling less than absolutely genuine and certainly never descending into self-parody.
"Magic" is a powerhouse opener destined to be a Simple Minds classic, a revved-up rocker in the vein of U2's "Beautiful Day" or "Vertigo" that gets the blood pumping right from the get-go. Released as the first single along with a striking video directed by Esteban Diacono, the acclaimed Argentinian graphic designer and animation whiz, "Magic" is clearly a song designed with the band's electrifying live performances in mind. Their upcoming tour begins on 13 February in Glasgow, and they obviously believe very strongly in the album as they plan on playing it in its entirety before delving into some of their classics. Charlie Burchill recently said of the tour, "The whole stage set-up is now more fluid. We're working on fresh arrangements of some old songs, and there is going to be more movement between the musicians onstage. There will be time for people to digest the songs and more space for Jim to talk to the audience." Sounds like an amazing experience.
Jim Kerr stresses that while studio recording is obviously important, the band considers live performance to be their truest area of strength. This impacts their studio work as well, since imagining how a song will translate live is a key factor in the band's recording process. "It's right there, it's right there," Kerr says. "I was saying to you earlier, 'You never know, you never know.' And the one thing we do know is live... Generally, when we're in there working on the sounds of the songs and the arrangements, I visualize, because I don't know what radio's gonna play, or what it's not gonna play -- they're definitely not gonna play us!" He laughs ruefully at the admission, with no touch of bitterness at the band's changing fortunes in the ever-fickle world of pop radio.
More importantly, though, Kerr says, "But I do know what it's gonna be like in the hall when that bit of a song comes through. Even if you're hearing it for the first time and maybe you don't know it, which is always difficult, I always think, 'Oh, when you hear it, you're gonna think, 'I don't know it, but I know I fucking like it, and I like what it's doing to me!'' After so many years of doing soundchecks and listening to the band's sound from the audience's perspective, Kerr says, "We have the experience to visualize that, and feel confident we're making the right call" in the studio.
At about 43 minutes in length, Walk Between Words is split into two halves, with Side A containing the more immediately melodic tracks, and Side B more introspective and cinematic. That is an intentional decision by the band, and it shows once again their use of the two-sided album format that, with the advent of CDs, many artists abandoned. For the most part, Simple Minds have always stayed within that traditional 45- to 50-minute sweet-spot for their studio albums. They realized long ago that, despite many artists ballooning their albums well past the hour mark, longer collections jammed with as much material as possible do not necessarily make for a better listening experience.
Kerr explains, "If you can get to eight or nine songs where you've kept the quality up, you've done great. You know, you have dips. So when the CD came along, and everyone went, 'Hey great, you can put on 13 tracks'... people struggled with three great tracks, nevermind 13 great tracks. So it's very hard to keep a focus there." Beyond the difficulty in maintaining high quality over the span of a longer album, there's also the issue of how much the listener can take.
This is particularly true for Simple Minds, as Kerr explains, "In the case of Simple Minds too, we're... I mean it's pretty full on, it's intense. I think there is an attention, ya know, there's a level where enough's enough no matter what, and you think, 'Yeah, but the more the merrier or value for money.' No it's not. No matter how loose the narrative, it gets broken when you go beyond there... So I think we felt -- 'cause you know we had other stuff, but it wasn't as good, it wasn't adding to the narrative -- and if you can't see it in that time you're never gonna see it. And if you can see it in that time, it should be worth the money." Keeping an album tight and focused has always been their goal, and on the eight-track Walk Between Worlds, there are no weak links to be found.
Part of it, of course, is the fondness Kerr has for the format, as he grew up listening to vinyl and he understands the deeper connection a listener can have with the music that is usually impossible by just flipping through words and numbers on a smartphone app. He says, "And one other thing, didn't you always flip it over because you just did? You never just listened to one side, it was incomplete. You hadn't had enough, and that didn't matter who it was, you flipped it over, and you played it." It's true. It's almost unthinkable when playing a record to listen through Side A and not flip it over and hear the rest.
The very idea of Walk Between Worlds summons the notion of traveling from era to era, tying together the threads of the past, present, and future. After all, it can hardly be argued that we all live in a very different world in 2018 than we did 10, 20 or certainly 40 years ago. Kerr and his bandmates reflect these changes in the music, as it's impossible not to. He says, "I think on a daily basis these things that you're confronted by, so therefore it would come out in the music. As artists, and even when we talk about just our industry, the changes it's gone through from when we first started, it's beyond Blade Runner. You can't imagine it."
And yet, despite all these upheavals, Kerr insists the basic ingredients remain the same as always. He says, "If I boil down what Simple Minds do fundamentally -- we try and find a melody, we try and find words, we try and find an emotion, we put it together as a song, we record it, we take it around the world playing it every night. That's what we've been doing since we were 18. Thank God the fundamentals haven't changed, because whereas everything else is dizzying, this is something to hold onto. And when I go into the rehearsal room next week, ya know, we're gonna be looking at drums, we're gonna be looking at basses, and we're gonna try and put together a show -- same thing that we've been doing since we were 18. It is exciting, thank God that's there, but everything else is dizzying. Not just the politics, the way people live. My own kids, they're 25, they don't know the world without the internet and social media and all that stuff. They're different beings, they really are."
Walk Between Worlds is a musical stroll through the galaxy of sound created by Simple Minds over the years. The jittery electro-tinged "Summer" harkens back to Simple Minds' early post-punk/new wave days. So does "The Signal and the Noise", a spiky and jagged rocker with a wobbly synth riff that sounds like a New Gold Dream outtake beamed three decades into the future. "Utopia", with chiming guitars and feverish vocals, is more in line with the passionate but melodic vibe of Once Upon a Time. Like on that album, the sound is vast but also deeply felt and emotional.
"In Dreams", with a particularly rich vocal by Kerr, is a gothic pop song of the future, with a hook strong enough that it should be considered a possible single. "Barrowland Star", named after the venerable venue at which the band will begin their upcoming tour, is a touching reflection on their early years and their first realizations of success. The title-track is a moody shape-shifter that's atmospheric and tense, with a jolt of new wave rock in the chorus that should prove to be a thrilling experience in concert. "Sense of Discovery" is the dramatic closer, a blend of the melancholy Street Fighting Years and their majestic classic "Alive and Kicking".
In some ways, Walk Between Worlds can be seen as a summation of everything that has come before it. It's certainly the Simple Minds sound, which over the years has allowed the band ample room to veer in different sonic and thematic directions while still maintaining the overriding identify that they've created for themselves. This freedom to experiment is something that Jim Kerr has cherished over the years, allowing the band to incorporate diverse influences and ideas under a still immediately-recognizable Simple Minds umbrella.
Kerr explains, "One of the things… I don't think I can say the word "pride" to you because it doesn't affect me personally as much, 'cause I'm really talking more about the musicians... there's a real scope. First of all, we're big music fans, so going back to those days we liked all different styles of music. Sometimes people say the 'Simple Minds sound' and I say 'What Simple Minds sound?' Is it the early electronic, or the art rock, or is it the new wave, or is it the stadium rock, or is it the poppy MTV, or the political, Celtic, Belfast Child?"
Kerr credits his collaborators over the years for such diversity, but he is the thread that ties them all together, with his ability to work so naturally in so many different areas. "When you think of that scope, and I give credit to the guys, you think well, first of all, it's great that they can play, have such a palette. And also you think it's great that we can do it and not lose identity because you know that's the gamble if you do stuff with that variation could you lose identify, or could you be all over the place."
Kerr is well aware of the trap that success can bring, or having an identifiable sound so specific that audiences are unable to follow along with anything else. Some artists end up sounding forced or contrived if they stray beyond their comfort zone, lacking the musical dexterity to pull it off convincingly. There is also the danger of being pegged with a hit so big that it becomes an albatross over the rest of an artist's career that can never be overcome.
Not so with Simple Minds. "You know, you can be a prisoner of your own thing," Kerr says. "Both not being able to escape it, but also not able anymore to hit the hype, or hit the level. But of course, especially rock and pop music has a history of artists coming along, their early works are really something that they gotta be measured by. Neil Young put it so well, as he often does. I think he was being super modest, but I knew what he meant. He said, 'No, it doesn't count so much what you do when you're young.' I mean, you think of his early records, you think, 'Hang on a minute, your young albums are incredible!' He said, 'It's when you're older and you've been beaten up, and you're full of doubt, and you don't have the same energy and all that stuff. It's what you do then that really counts.' I guess a bit like a fighter coming off the ropes, or something. It's quite an interesting thing, and I can relate to that a bit."
Ultimately, Simple Minds' success and longevity, and their ability to produce an album as powerful as Walk Between Worlds, comes down to Kerr and his bandmates believing in their music. He says, "We love the stuff, ya know. When we're in there when it's happening, there's nothing feels better. Although I started the conversation by saying, 'You never know' -- you know when it's doing it to you... And you get excited by that, and when you get the reciprocal, the world feels a great place cause you feel less lonely. You think, 'Yeah, this is the great thing about music...' But all great bands, or anyone who attempts to be great, you gotta somehow carve out your own culture, and your own style, and your own sounds, and even your own language both lyrically and musically. It doesn't matter if it's the Doors or U2 or whatever, you gotta somehow carve out your own territory, and if you can, you know, you're authentic."
Speaking of authentic, fans should make a point of grabbing the deluxe version of Walk Between Worlds which includes the band's fantastic cover of the classic "Dirty Old Town", a duet between Kerr and vocalist Sarah Brown, who's now an official member of Simple Minds after touring with them for nearly a decade. It's a stunning take, and all the more poignant for the circumstances in which it was recorded -- in Manchester, the evening after the tragic 22 May 2017 terror attack in which a bomb exploded at Manchester Arena following an Ariana Grande concert, killing 23 people and wounding hundreds.
Kerr explains the decision to perform "Dirty Old Town" and includes it in the album's deluxe edition: "That song was recorded live in Manchester only a few hours after that horrible event with the terrorist bomb. We came into Manchester at midnight, and police were everywhere. We'd played Liverpool that night; it's only 90 minutes away. And God, this terrible thing happened, and we got up the next day -- is the concert going to go ahead, is it not going to go ahead? Even if it could go ahead, was it morally right because the venue we played was a ten-minute walk…"
"Anyway, the gig went ahead, and at the soundcheck we said let's mark this moment, let's do something! We knew the song 'cause we had played it, we had grew up with the song. Although it's about Manchester, it's truly about industrial towns in Britain in the 1950s and it could be Glasgow, it could be anywhere. But Ewan MacColl had written the song about Manchester and the whole thing… Just the whole spirit of that day… The real star of the piece, of course, is the vocalist Sarah Brown. She didn't know the song, so she sang it twice at the soundcheck, and said, 'I can't do it.' I said, 'What? You sound like Mahalia Jackson!' I said this is the real deal. And so we walked on, and at the encore, we just said a few words and played it. The sound guy recorded it at the desk, and when it came to the album, I thought, 'This thing should be heard!" It's makes a wonderful addition to the album, since even though it's a cover, "Dirty Old Town" displays the genuine heart and feeling that is at the core of Simple Minds' best work.
Simple Minds has also been busy helping to preserve their musical legacy with an outstanding series of archival recordings, including deluxe expanded editions of classic albums like Once Upon a Time and New Gold Dream. Kerr asserts that EMI Records is the driving force behind them. "They are really record company initiatives," he says, "but once they come to us about it, we make ourselves available. They own them, but we go in and work with them… We try and help them get a great package together, see if there's any bonus stuff, because they do a good job with them. They put together nice boxes and all that stuff. We don't see so much out of it, but the legacy... You want it to be in good shape, really."
Kerr hints that the series will likely continue, and undoubtedly from the fans' perspective one that would be most welcome is the 1989 epic Street Fighting Years, arguably the band's creative pinnacle. It's also an album that vividly illustrates the differences between the US and the UK markets, especially in the 1980s. In America, the band had reached #1 in 1985 with the iconic soundtrack single from The Breakfast Club, "Don't You (Forget About Me)", but while that song hit the Top 10 in the UK, it was the powerful "Belfast Child" from Street Fighting Years that became their only chart-topper. The somber and politically-charged Street Fighting Years was a hard sell in America, and Kerr remembers with a mix of frustration and wry amusement the US label's response to the album.
He says, "We really wanted that record, we wanted to do that Street Fighting Years thing, that's where we were. And the American record company, bless them, was like, 'Where's "Don't You (Forget About Me) Two?'" And ya know, who could fucking blame them? It had broken through, and it was there. That was cool and all of that as well, but we were done, we had moved on. And it was a real hard one to kind of total up, but at least they were honest. They said we're not into this, they're like... Mandela, Belfast and all that? Forget it, we don't want to know! And I couldn't really see radio in America putting that on, but ya know, someone was asking me, 'Could there not have been some compromise?' But ya know, we have always gone with what's in us, and unless you go with what's in you, you're always gonna struggle. We sometimes play "Street Fighting Years" the track live, it's mind-blowing… I mean, it's a great piece. Trevor Horn is a great, great producer as well. I mean he's off the scale."
Walk Between Worlds isn't quite "off the scale" perhaps, yet it's assuredly an album that should please long-time fans, and will hopefully engage new listeners who might then be willing to then go back and discover albums like Street Fighting Years or even more recent ones like 2002's Cry or the outstanding Graffiti Soul from 2009. American fans, in particular, especially the more casual ones, will hopefully someday learn that Simple Minds are far more than just "Don't You (Forget About Me)" and "Alive and Kicking".
Unlike many of their contemporaries who rose to fame in the 80s and who are evidently content to simply tour off their old hits and release multiple "Greatest Hits" collections in lieu of bothering with new material (Tears for Fears comes to mind immediately), Simple Minds have never stopped creating. The arc of their career spans decades of music in which styles and trends have been in perpetual flux, with change being the only constant. Simple Minds have managed to navigate this unforgiving industry landscape all on their own terms, and by doing exactly the music they want -- few artists with their longevity can say that. Walk Between Worlds shows unequivocally that Simple Minds still has much to offer, building yet another layer on an already tremendous musical legacy.
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