Don’t expect Justin Currie to grow old gracefully, not while he can knock out songs and bait hecklers – with or without Del Amitri
There’s some graffiti on the wall of the rock star’s mews home but the message behind “Please kill me (again)” would seem to be ambivalent.
The scribbler could be a fan of the star, and so kill could mean wow: “I’d love it if you’d wow me with more of your soulful, strummy pop.” Or perhaps he or she really doesn’t care for this music and is being sarcastic: “Another round of gloomy dirges will probably finish me off, otherwise I’ll do the job myself.”
Well, something’s got to give because the star has a new album ready for release and here he is in black shirt, skinny jeans and cowboy boots, introducing himself with the most marshmallow of handshakes and leading the way up the narrow staircase.
Who would live in a house like this, with its kitsch Jesus and even kitscher Elvis? The shelves containing the philosophies of Chairman Mao, Carl Sagan and, er, Davina McCall? The Johnny Mathis picture-sleeve 7in singles on the mantelpiece and the Curly-Wurlys on the coffee table? The groovy TV-cum-gramophone-cum-wireless that in 1964 cost more than a small car and – eyeing me up as I try to select the right easy chair – the cat called Abdul? Why, it’s Justin Currie: singer, sidelappers model, former Del Amitri frontman, permanent provocateur. Briefly, I wonder if I should be describing Currie’s abode, in Glasgow’s West End, in this detail. But the guy isn’t private about very much – not his prickly politics or how much loot his choicest choons have earned or the current state of his relationship – so I think I might just get away with it.
The biggest feature of this room – discounting the groaning wall of CDs – is a blown-up photograph of his blonde-haired girlfriend Emma looking cool and filmstar-ish as she gazes out of a lovely antique train carriage on a journey into the Majorcan hills. He says she’s chaotic in the mornings and so is pleasantly surprised the place is tidy. Perversely, he’s the rocker and she’s the tax officer.
“We met a long time ago, had a wee fling in 1986 and got together properly 13 years ago,” Currie explains. Presumably she figures in his songs; does she ask which ones? “Ach, she’s a much more subtle operator than that.” He’s got a funny way of laughing through his teeth; emitting a mechanical hiss. “Drunkenly, I did once sit Emma down and list all of the songs which were ostensibly about her. This was a pathetic attempt at romance. I thought she’d be putty in my hands. But she was far too canny to be flattered by my bullshit.”
There was, he says, “a wee bit of controversy” over the track The Fight To Be Human on his previous solo album, 2010’s The Great War. “There’s a line which goes: ‘So I hoodwinked my woman and bought her a ring.’ I liked the idea of a man doing that duplicitously. I was telling my friend Bobby in America about the song and he said: ‘Has Emma heard it?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘do you think there’ll be a problem.’ ‘F*** yeah.’”
Currie, you see, had just presented Emma with a ring. “That had given me the idea for the song. I told her: ‘Please don’t think it’s all about you.’ She was fine with that although the line does get cast up at me all the time.” He flicks his curtains of hair and looks serious for a moment. “One of the things I really abhor is censorship in art, although that’s too grand a word for pop songs. You have to be able to say what you flamin’ well like.” So have he and Emma got married? He laughs his funny laugh. “I’m not sure we’re still engaged! I mean, we’re still together, but we don’t call each other fiancé/fiancée any more. There was a falling out. And the ring seems to have, um, mysteriously disappeared.” More chuckling. “You know, we had a joyous engagement and everything’s fine.”
Currie really will tell you just about anything, such as how his next pair of football boots will be personalised – “You can have up to four letters so I thought I’d go for ‘Wank’.”
We discuss his childhood. I knew dad John was chorus master for the Scottish National Orchestra but was unaware his mum Barbara had a brief acting career before the children came along. “She was in an episode of Coronation Street – sadly it’s been wiped.” Currie remembers her telling him he’d be the first to have his own family. “She was convinced of that but, just like most of my gay friends reckoned they were gay at 13, I knew at that age I was never having kids.”
Then suddenly we’re on to politics. Currie describes the independence debate as “fascinating”. What I think he means here is: “I love a good rammy and I’m perfectly capable of starting one.” Come the referendum next September he’ll be voting No. Independence, he says, would be bad for Scotland. “And it would be very bad for the English. The top half would be cast to the lions. All the socialists in the north would be f***ed because they would no longer have the bulwark of the big Scottish anti-Tory constituency. I don’t want us to do something which is so bad for the English that in 30 years’ time there could be civil war. It’s perfectly possible.”
Of course we’re really here to talk about the new album. The third under his own name, Lower Reaches took the 48-year-old Currie to both Skye and Texas. “I rented this cottage in Torrin. I took my walking boots and thought that if no songs came I could at least take a dauner up the Cuillins.” But, on guitar and piano, taping into the same brick-sized cassette player he’s always used, 15 were knocked out in just 11 days. That was a record and suddenly he had one. “That number would normally take me two years to write.”
From there it was on to Austin and the recording studio of Mike McCarthy whose production work Currie had long admired, although the album didn’t arrive without a struggle. “I’m not remotely courageous or experimental when I’m making music,” he admits. “My job is to find something that works, that folk can listen to without having to cover their ears. That’s not really the right approach. You should follow your instincts and be as dangerous and outré as you need to be and I’m just not capable of that. But I am a control-freak and very soon I wanted to take my record right back out of Mike’s grasping hands. I gave him 30 songs to whittle down – ten each about love, death and music. He said: ‘I don’t like the ones about love but I love the ones about music.’ So we didn’t go with my final selection. A lot of the time in the studio I was sat there, buttocks clenched. He totally stood up to me, which I wasn’t used to. He ignored me, which I wasn’t used to either. But I like to think the pain was worth it.”
The last time I met Currie was 12 years ago when he was telling better stories than he was singing songs. He was plugging 2002’s Can You Do Me Good?, which turned out to be Del Amitri’s last hurrah after five albums and hit singles like Nothing Ever Happens and Always The Last To Know which belonged to the long-standing Scottish tradition of maudlin, beery singalongs. “I don’t think we’d admitted to ourselves it was all over,” he says. “We did just one tour for that record, finishing off at [Glasgow’s] Barrowland with us stripping to the waist for the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen. There was a party, but I couldn’t get drunk. At 5am, it finally dawned on me: ‘Shit, for the first time in almost 20 years there’s nothing in the diary.’”
Now, though, the songs are as good as the yarns. He doesn’t say this himself because he’s a gigantic self-deprecator. He thinks everyone writes their best stuff in their mid-twenties and that he’s no different. But he’s stayed curious about the male condition and with experience has come greater insight. “In songs the main thing for me is not to be dishonest about what men think and do. Now I’m not saying they’re all potential rapists but even among family men, men who do good, there’s the capacity for harbouring dark urges. I know this to be true, it’s a natural human impulse, and I’m sure it’s the same for women.”
The new song Half Of Me seems to be about such a conflicted personality, if not a schizophrenic one. Currie sings that half of him is content with the domestic arrangement, settled and safe, but the other half hates this side of himself, timid and afraid, and wants to “go out blazing trails in a haze of rock’n’roll”. There’s some neat wordplay here: the next time he mentions his “other half” you presume he means his partner, who scoffs at his fantasy, calls it a “joke”.
“Well,” he says, “you can read it from the point of view of being a musician but, pretentiously, you hope your songs have some universality. That one is really about being nearly f***in’ 50 and I’m dreading it! I absolutely hated turning 40. I always wanted to be in a band, right from when I was a kid. But even at that age I thought it would have to be over by the time I was 40, that by then I’d have put away ridiculous childish things and grown up.
“I felt over the hill. If I was a fan and read that the singer was 40 I’d be like: ‘Nah, I’m not going to see that band.’ It took me a couple of years to get over that; I was on the downward slope and it was depressing. Now I’m actually enjoying being in my forties – but that’s probably because I most definitely and completely don’t want to turn bloody bastardin’ 50. It seems that rock’n’roll, when you get to a certain age, turns into showbiz and you just have to accept that. The one saving grace is I’m still singing my own songs, telling my own jokes.”
His most showbizzy offers thus far have been “teaser emails” from the TV hucksters wondering if he’d be interested in various reality shows. “One of them was I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! I like that one - it’s light entertainment – but had to say: ‘I’m not a celebrity and you can’t get me in there.’” Then there was the friend of a friend who asked if he’d play at a wedding. “I didn’t know the people getting married, didn’t think I had the songs for a wedding – you’re talking about the guy who used to cheerfully insert ‘misogynistic’ into his own press releases – and so politely declined. But I kept getting asked and the price kept going up.” What did it reach? “£6,000. But I wouldn’t, couldn’t, have done it – not even for half a million.”
Unlike other pop stars, Currie is not coy talking about money. I mention how the late Gerry Rafferty is the only performer who’s ever told me what a single song has been worth – Baker Street in 2003 still earned him £70,000 a year. Currie says: “Our biggest hit in America was Roll To Me. The accountants were sceptical about how much US radio would pay but I was pretty sure it would be a lot because the song was everywhere. Ian [Harvie, bandmate and co-composer] and I were in West Hollywood. It was a brilliantly sunny day and our manager picked us up in his VW Golf convertible for the classic drive under the giant palms. ‘Guys,’ he said, ‘do you know how much money you now have in the bank? £870,000.’ We just fell about laughing.”
He tells some more stories from the days of the Dels, these ones much less triumphalist, about how their football song Don’t Come Home Too Soon got them blamed for Scotland’s exit from the 1998 World Cup and how they demo-ed 80 new tracks only to have them all rejected by the record company. “Give us Robbie Williams’ Angels,” they said. Currie was raging. “I wouldn’t have minded being told to write I Am The Walrus but Angels is one of the worst songs ever, with a terrible payoff that doesn’t make sense. Finally we just hammered out something really dumb with a chorus that repeated four times. They said: ‘Great! Give us three more like that.’”
Hammering out songs is nothing like hammering in rivets and Currie acknowledges his good fortune. “I haven’t actually needed to work – when was that last kitchen job I had done? – since 1986.” He says he may have to do some proper earning soon, though, as his solo work, while artistically rewarding, doesn’t make him any money. A Del Amitri reunion? Every broke-up band gets back together eventually. “If we got the right offer I think we’d say yes. Ian and Andy [Alston] aren’t as against it as they used to be and neither am I. If I’d only managed to make one record on my own the tail would feel firmly between the legs. I’d be less embarrassed now.”
Meanwhile with his new songs he’s going back on the road. He loves touring, loves audience interaction, encourages heckling. “Someone will choose their moment to shout out ‘You’re shite’. It always gets a laugh.” Currie is an enthusiastic heckler himself in comedy clubs and recently tried out some banterish wind-up in the political realm. A handful of Scots rockers were asked by a music website to submit their views on the homeland as it ponders independence. “And most of them were boring, weren’t they?” You couldn’t say that about Currie’s contribution. “I don’t like Scots,” he wrote. “They’re bad losers, ill-mannered foul-breathed and mean-spirited. They’re past caring, they’re beyond reprieve, they’re the snot on England’s sleeve.” Some Nationalists were unhappy. “They wanted me prosecuted for racism. It was a poem about tribal hatred but they didn’t get it.”
It was also a joke but you’ve got to be careful with humour and irony and a wee bit of provocation. Just ask his girlfriend.
• Lower Reaches (Ignition Records) is released on 19 August. Justin Currie plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on 12 September