Jim Kerr, Scottish musician and founder member of the rock band Simple Minds chats with Kevin Cooper about his love of the bagpipes, forty years working with Charlie Burchill, their latest acoustic album and their forthcoming tour of the UK
Jim Kerr is a Scottish musician, singer and songwriter, and is best known as being the lead singer of the rock band Simple Minds.
In November 1977 punk rock band Johnny And The Self Abusers changed their name to Simple Minds and became the most commercially successful Scottish band of the 80s. They have achieved five UK number one albums during their career and have sold thirty million records worldwide.
Kerr continues to record and tour with Simple Minds, and in April 2016 Simple Minds performed their first unplugged gig at the Zermatt Unplugged Festival in Switzerland, followed by a second unplugged show in Zürich in October 2016. This was the first concert to feature the new live acoustic line-up including Jim Kerr on lead vocals, Charlie Burchill on acoustic guitar, Ged Grimes on acoustic guitar, Sarah Brown on lead vocals, Gordy Goudie on acoustic guitar and Cherisse Osei on percussion.
Whilst busy rehearsing for their forthcoming acoustic tour, Jim Kerr took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Good afternoon Kevin I’m very well thank you and how are you today?
I’m good thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
It’s my pleasure.
And just how is life treating Jim Kerr at this moment in time?
I can’t complain, I have been busy doing the thing and I am about to go out and do the thing again which is all that we wanted to do with our lives, which was playing in a band, touring and hopefully making people happy.
Well I have to tell you that you have made me feel really old today (laughter).
(Laughter) how have I managed to do that?
I was trying to work out just when I first saw you performing here in Nottingham and it is over thirty years ago (Laughter).
Is it really, and where was that?
It was at The Royal Concert Hall back in 1984 on the Sparkle In The Rain tour. You were wearing a dark green Paul Smith’s suit and you had a small seat on the back of your microphone stand so that you could wrap yourself around it (laughter).
(Hysterical laughter) I remember it well, that was my perch (laughter). As you rightly say that was during the Sparkle In The Rain tour; such memories. They were such great times and I’m so pleased that you both remember and enjoyed them.
Coming right up to date we should talk to you about your Acoustic album. Are you pleased with how well it has been received?
To be honest with you I have been stunned by just how well the album has been received. I have to tell you that it took me and Charlie (Burchill) quite a while to rise to the challenge of the acoustic project. It was first mentioned way back in the Unplugged days which I know that if you can remember Sparkle In The Rain then you will remember Unplugged on MTV. That was really how the whole acoustic thing came about as a popular format that most people would do. But for the longest time we never really thought that it was for us for a whole multitude of reasons.
I know that this will come across as being superficial but the main reason that we resisted doing it for so long is that both Charlie and I had this mental vision of acoustic being a couple of guys sitting on stools surrounded by nice little candles. That would be alright for a few songs but how are you going to make that work for a whole gig (laughter). Or indeed how are you going to make an album out of that. Every so often the subject would come up, we would get excited about it but it would always get put onto the back burner.
Didn’t a certain Chris Evans play a part in the build up to you recording the album?
Yes he did, that’s right. After we had released the last studio album we were going to be promoting it on the Chris Evans radio show and Chris begged us to play two or three songs acoustically in order to make the session really something special. We told Chris that it wasn’t really something that we did but after a lot of begging from Chris we agreed to do just that and I have to say that the reaction was quite sensational both within the Simple Minds following and also social networking. That was really good but it still begged the question that yes it was alright for two or three songs but just how are you really going to make this work for an album let alone a tour (laughter).
I have to tell you that one of my favourite AC/DC songs is Money Talks; would you say that would be appropriate here? (laughter).
What can I say (laughter). If that is your favourite AC/DC song then yes, you have heard the expression money talks and let me tell you, it certainly did here (laughter). This time last year we were asked to play at the legendary Zermatt Unplugged Music Festival and of course we said no. However, the organiser kept coming back with improved offers until Charlie and I both said “you know what, this might be a total disaster but at least it will be a well-paid disaster” (laughter). So having agreed to play the Festival we knuckled down and for six weeks we messed around with a few songs in an attempt to put together a show not knowing if it was going to work or not. Within ten minutes we were looking at each other saying “this works”.
The audience were up and out of their seats, singing along and the whole experience was so energetic. The last thing that it turned out to be was just a couple of guys sitting on stools. We had a six piece band and let me tell you, we were rocking. So it was at that point that we realised that it was going to work live. While we were recording what will be the follow-up to our last studio album we took six weeks off in the summer last year in an attempt to see exactly what we could make of this acoustic thing. We thought that if we were going to tour then we should have a record to promote and that is exactly how it all came about.
Well I must tell you that I have been playing the album to death for the past few months and I have to say that I think that what you have done with Waterfront in taking out Derek (Forbes) iconic opening bass riff, in my opinion, works fantastically well.
It’s funny isn’t it; when it comes to Simple Minds songs there are very few that are more bombastic, and in this case I mean it in a positive sense, than Waterfront. You think ‘how’s that going to work’ and in fact I have to say that only yesterday in rehearsals Waterfront felt and sounded wonderful. It still creates that great atmosphere. Obviously it is a different beast but nevertheless I think in your mind you don’t miss stuff, you just replace it with something else and Waterfront is such a great example of just one of the many surprises that we felt during the process of making that record and indeed how the result turned out.
Was it a difficult task selecting the final fifteen tracks for the album?
To be honest it pretty much flowed together and what was a massive help for us in choosing the final fifteen tracks was that we had put a show together first. That kind of gave us the nucleus of which songs would find their way onto the album. Whenever we put together a show there is a flow of songs that you have to play. There are songs where you like to put in something unexpected, you want to do something new and there is something from the very start like Chelsea Girl. You even put in some obscure covers; all of these things we do whenever we play a live set. That really informed us as to what the final selection of songs for the album was going to be.
Were there any songs that you initially thought would slot in to the set list but later found that they actually didn’t work?
Yes there were a few that didn’t work and so therefore they got side-lined. Having said that the main reason that some songs didn’t work was that some songs were most definitely a tough nut to crack but with more time invested in them I have to be honest and say that I think that all of them would have worked albeit some better than others. Again it is a throwaway thing for me to say but if it is a great song then it is a great song almost no matter how you play it. You could play it with an orchestra, you could play it with banjo dare I say (laughter). However, the time aspect played a very big part in it and so, as I have said, a few songs did get side-lined.
On the subject of songs being side-lined does that mean that there are already thoughts of an Acoustic volume two (laughter).
(Laughter) let me say that there are no plans for volume two as we speak. But who knows, time will tell (laughter).
You are about to tour the album here in the UK. Does touring still excite you or has it now become a necessary evil?
No certainly not, touring has always excited us. At this moment in time I am speaking to you now some ten minutes’ walk from where Charlie and I played our first ever gig some forty years ago now. If you had said to us then what do you want to do with your lives I am sure that we would have both said that we wanted to be in a band that tours and goes around the world. And here we are all of these years later still excited about the challenge of that and hand on heart I say this on my kid’s life, last night I woke up at four o’clock in the morning and I simply could not get back to sleep. It’s not because I am panicking about the forthcoming tour, it’s simply because I am so excited about the tour.
I think that I went to bed last night with some new ideas in my head and they just caused me to toss and turn. But that’s down to excitement; we are well rehearsed and ready to go. Don’t get me wrong there have been times when we have started a tour and perhaps we were winging it but it was due to genuine excitement.
You hit Nottingham on 26th May just what can we expect?
Well as you know we are touring to promote the Acoustic album so the entire show will be an acoustic show. I say acoustic but for all of the aficionados out there it will in fact be an almost semi-acoustic show because Charlie’s guitar will at some stage during the evening be going through an amplifier. We have got a six piece band, some strings, together with a beautiful stage set. We went the other way from the two stools and a few tea light candles (laughter). We have got a proper beautiful stage set together with a unique lightshow to go with it as well. We really have tried to make this tour unique in so far as Simple Minds tours that we have done in the past.
We want it to be a unique experience that we hope the people will feel that it is and take that feeling away with them. I guess that what it is not ironically, it is not reduced and we have really put a lot of time and effort into this tour. In fact I will be cheesy and say that it is a spectacular event (laughter).
Will there be any surprises; will we be seeing a certain Steve Harley popping up?
(Laughter) that was amazing and Steve is going to pop up but I will be as genuinely surprised as you because I don’t know where or when. Steve will actually be out touring at a similar time to Simple Minds. I do know that he wants to go to Glasgow, not just because it’s his home town but it is also his wife’s home town too. I know that he wants to do something but there is nothing solid as yet. Charlie and I are such huge fans of his and for him to show up and play at one of our shows was a thrill for both of us.
You mention Charlie, you and he have now been together for over forty years, longer than most marriages. What’s the secret?
(Hysterical laughter) like most marriages Charlie and I fight like cat and dog (laughter). At times we drive each other mental but we are really good mates. We have so much in common but we are also very different which I have to say keeps it interesting. However, the one thing that we really do have in common is this thing called Simple Minds. Neither he nor I have run out of desire to continue and take it to the max.
Having been together now for forty years will you be doing anything special or will there be any specials releases in order to mark the passing of that occasion?
Yes I really do think that we have to. It would be wrong of us not to do something to commemorate that fact. However, the thing that has been the hardest has been for us to actually pin down the actual year when Simple Minds first got in a room together. The first time that we all got into a room to rehearse together was November 1977 so that would mean that November this year would be the fortieth year. However, if you are being pedantic, and you know what, most people are, then January 1978 was when we actually played our first gig and in fact April 1979 was when our first album was released. So as you can see we are trying to squeeze a lot of things in here but we definitely do want to do something to signify forty years of Simple Minds music and in fact there are chats taking place as we speak.
And is the new studio album all ready to go?
Yes it is it is done and dusted and ready to go. We finished it two weeks ago prior to setting up to rehearse the acoustic stuff. We seem to have a great momentum and the ability to jump from one thing to another. We were also on tour in Australia in February playing with the full band and then we came back, went into the studio to finish off the last of the overdubs and mixes of the new album and then got straight into the acoustic rehearsals. The acoustic tour will keep us busy for a couple of months so it will be sometime after the summer when we will finish off the artwork and start planning the release.
Do you have any thoughts as yet for a release date?
No we don’t have any thoughts as yet and I really do hope that it is sometime this year but if not it will most definitely be early next year.
And a title?
(Laughter) only if I kill you after (laughter).
If I had to push you what would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
The highlight for me is to still be playing live with Simple Minds. That’s what I wanted to do; I would like to think that is where we excel. People are always asking me ‘which highlight’ or ‘which gig’ and I always say the same thing; there have been some landmark events such as Live Aid in 1985, the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in 1988, playing at Wembley Stadium, and all of those things. But I also mention some of the back wood gigs that we played whilst we were still learning our trade. I clearly remember playing in Nottingham at Rock City supporting Magazine and the nervous excitement of learning our trade was equally important to us and was as equally a highlight.
What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?
(Laughter) oh well this will really make you laugh. Despite the rumours, I am not one of these mad raving Scotsmen but come anywhere near me with bagpipes and my eyes just moisten (laughter). I just can’t deal with it (laughter). So I would have to say anything with bagpipes then I’ve gone totally.
I asked Burt Bacharach the same question and he said that it was Walk On Bye by The Stranglers…
Did he really, well what a thrill for The Stranglers to hear that. It’s an amazing song.
But it’s not. I asked him if their version had moved him to tears and he simply replied ‘no, it was shit’ (laughter).
(Hysterical laughter) that’s great, that is really funny. I know The Stranglers and let me tell you, they would love that as well. They would like that response and would get a kick out of that.
Jim on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me it’s been great and I will see you in Nottingham.
Thanks for that Kevin, you take care and make sure that you say hi in Nottingham. Bye for now.