JIM Kerr tells Aidan Smith how a five-album box set led fans to remember just how much they liked Simple Minds. Now they’re readying new material – and starring at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay
Well, this is a first. I’ve never interviewed a rock star right after the last “Thankyouverymuch – g’night!” But, talking to me just after Simple Minds close their gig in Sydney with garage-rock classic Gloria, Jim Kerr seems remarkably perky. “I might sound a bit light-headed,” he says, “and we’ll probably get interrupted by a few expats telling me they kent my faither. Post-show these days, though, is a pretty tame affair.”
When was it at its most untame? “That’s a subjective thing. I might be able to remember some night we all thought turned into a right bacchanal, but the response of Lemmy might be: ‘Big jessies!’ Sydney brings back a few hoary memories. The first time we were here was a pubs and clubs tour and after every gig we would have been roaring into the night, with our old manager Bruce Findlay shouting: ‘This is the place!’
“But I was never much of a drinker, even then, and now the show rider is split between two rooms: the organic-healthy one with its mangoes and avocados and the other one with its Mars Bars and Toblerones. You’ll usually find me among the green tea and camomile – I could open my own health food store, me – although ironically I’m always the first to get the flu. The hardened warriors never seem to have a problem.”
This Down Under tour for one of the biggest bands Scotland has produced is in the company of Australia’s The Church and Devo, those loonies from Akron, Ohio.
“Me and Charlie [Burchill, Minds’ guitarist] saw Devo play Glasgow’s Apollo and they remember its amazingly high stage. But they’d forgotten a stunt before the show at a nearby music shop. There was quite a crowd and we had to watch through the window. They bought some guitars – ones Charlie had been drooling over daily – and proceeded to saw them into little pieces. They wore their funny conehead hats that day and they’re still wearing them now. They’re committed to their art because their get-ups are amazing, though I worry for them in this heat. It’s supposed to hit the thirties tomorrow.”
While Kerr, 53, basks in an Oz summer, they’re building a stage for him in wintry Edinburgh. Simple Minds are the capital’s Hogmanay headliners for the Concert in the Gardens. And as they help revellers at the world’s biggest street party bring in the New Year on this night of nights, the leading Mind will be reflecting on 2012 and how kind it’s been to his embattled old band, earning them their best reviews in a long while – and how looking back has enabled them move forward.
At the start of the year they released the X5 box set of their first five albums plus the usual B-sides and rarities. It might have met with the usual response for retrospectives, of interest to diehards and completists only. Instead it brought re-appraisal and rediscovery, with old fans who didn’t much care for the Minds’ stadium rock, pomp rock and political rock eras remembering how fast and questing and great they’d been – and never more so than on the song I Travel, inspired by both Donna Summer and krautrock. The band toured as ghosts of their former selves, playing five tracks from each of the five albums to rave reviews, and the inevitable live release followed.
“I had a lot of trepidation about this,” says Kerr, “but it proved to be a lot more enjoyable than I thought. Let’s be honest: it was an exercise in nostalgia. Now, nostalgia has its place but we’re not one of these bands who embrace it. I worried it would be a bit like digging a favourite pair of jeans from the back of the wardrobe and discovering they don’t fit anymore. We all know how dispiriting that can be.
“You can’t go back. That was then and this is now. But playing those old songs again, there was a frisson in the air. We were calling up the ghosts and the people who came out to see us seemed to like it – not just as a reminder of an old Simple Minds show they enjoyed but a whole period of music: Magazine, early Ultravox et al.
“Some of the songs we hadn’t played in quite a wee while. I’d say: ‘Fifteen years, Charlie?’ and someone in the crew would run off and check and it would be 28. And there was a couple of times when the younger guys working for us would hear us soundcheck a track and go: ‘That’s a new song, right?’ They thought it sounded so contemporary. This is maybe a bit of an exaggeration – and probably you wouldn’t expect any less from me – but there were one or two nights on that tour when we sounded like we were coming from the future.”
Simple Minds, with 60 million albums sales to their name, grew out of Johnny and the Self-Abusers, the short-lived Glasgow punk band formed in 1977 by Kerr and Burchill, whose long-lasting friendship was cemented on a building site. When they were eight, their families moved to the new Toryglen estate while it was still under construction.
“We’d raid the workies’ huts and diggers for nudie books and read them on our sand mountains,” laughs Kerr. Toryglen was the kind of scheme which would later be dubbed “brutalist” but the singer remembers it as a “good place”.
Certainly, he’s always told good stories about it, such as how guitars were purchased with cigarette coupons and how, when the band toured the States for the first time, Burchill’s mother said to Kerr’s mum: “Charlie’s gone to America and he’s not got his keys so I’ll have to wait in. He’s not got his jacket either.” Kerr’s mother Irene died two years ago but his father Jimmy is still going strong at 75 and has hitched a ride on the antipodean tour. “He missed tonight’s show, though. I couldn’t drag him away from his pint and these old boys he’d met at the hotel.”
So what was Hogmanay like in Toryglen? “Fantastic. A bigger deal than Christmas. I remember Dad working Christmas but never New Year. We had open house for uncles, aunties and the neighbours. Dad was a big Beatles fan, Mum loved the Rolling Stones. It was my job to tee up the 45s on the record player although there was singing too, with at least one of the aunties fancying herself as Dionne Warwick. The party would last for days.”
Kerr is thrilled to be playing Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. “The band are lucky to have a few iconic gigs to their name and this will be another. Wherever I’ve been in the world on Auld Year’s Night, the pictures from Edinburgh have always made it look like a million dollars.”
For Simple Minds, 2013 will bring a new album, which will probably sound a fair bit like their old albums. “The tour is informing the new material, definitely,” adds Kerr. So are they going to better I Travel? “Well, that might be tricky. But for a long time this band was flatlining. People now know we still exist.” Not only that, it’s cool to like Simple Minds again.
• Simple Minds headline the Concert in the Gardens, Edinburgh, New Year’s Eve.