Simple Minds Find the Right Sonic Mixture That Enables Them to Walk Between Worlds
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 up front, but at the same time, you only want it to be retro to a point,” admits Kerr (kneeling in 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 synthand-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 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.
MM: Since the core Worlds album has eight songs, I have a feeling you guys very much thought about presenting it in vinyl terms.
JK: 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.
MM: Your voice is in fantastic shape on this album. What’s the secret of keeping at the top of your vocal game?
JK: 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!
MM: 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? JK: 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 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.
MM: 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? JK: 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.
An extended version of the Mettler-kerr Q&A, including a discussion of why recording a string section at Abbey Road helped Kerr come full circle from when he “froze” in that storied studio in 1979, appears in the S&V Interview blog on soundandvision.com.