Simple Minds – Marathon Men

Forty-five years together and still releasing new material, Simple Minds show no signs of slowing down with the release of another studio album, “Direction of the Heart”. We spoke to Jim Kerr about the album and the secret behind the band’s longevity, and got some insight into a few older tracks “Belfast Child” and “Premonition”.

Forty-five years together and still releasing new material, Simple Minds show no signs of slowing down with the release of another studio album, “Direction of the Heart”. We spoke to Jim Kerr about the album and the secret behind the band’s longevity, and got some insight into a few older tracks “Belfast Child” and “Premonition”.

Text & live photos: Anne-Marie Forker
Photo: Dean Chalkley

Hi Jim! The last time I saw you in Norway was in March 2020, just before the world changed, that must have been a difficult time to tour?
– Are you from Northern Ireland?
I am, yes. Not far from where you grew up! I’m from Belfast.
Ah, magic, that’s great. I was like…. I think I know that accent. Well, that’s even better. Lovely to talk to you. Obviously that time was bizarre and scary. It was something previously unimaginable, you’re quite right. At the time I remember being in rehearsals in London and at that time in a European context, you’ll remember it was all coming out of Italy, and I live in Italy, although I live in the South of Italy and this was the North. Day by day, you could see the reality of this thing, and although we did get out on tour, it was rather short-lived – although we got to play the Scandinavian part of the tour – but on what was meant to be a year-long tour, we suddenly found ourselves on the ‘plane back home within about ten days. Of course, everyone thought – we don’t know what this thing is, but we’ll be back in a couple of months – and little did we know.  But within a few months we were back to our default position which is when we’re not touring, we’re writing and recording, and we were hell-bent on using the time and hell-bent on making a specific kind of record, a record that would defy the odds and be upbeat and joyous, which seemed to be the last thing which people were feeling at that time. That’s the mission we set for ourselves.

Speaking of upbeat – euphoric even – the track «Vision Thing», I understand was dedicated to your father, and sincere condolences for his passing. I think I met him briefly at one of your concerts in Oxford. I was down at the front, and this lovely gentleman came down and was escorted into the front row and he had a lovely smile and I could see your face in his, and I thought “Is that Jim’s father”? I was never one hundred percent sure that it was.
– Well, funny thing, it just happens that I have a picture of him standing at the stage door in Oxford.  He’s got his suit on and he smoked a pipe, so he would watch the first couple of songs and then stand out and talk to the truck drivers, talked to the security people [laughs]. He would go round the hall talking to people who worked at the hall. He was like – I’ve seen you a million times, so who cares, and he was right, so yeah, you would have seen him. But, we started the album pre-pandemic, we were working near Dad in Glasgow, the place Charlie (Burchill, guitar) and I were there, and it became apparent Dad was seriously ill.  I mean, he was still walking around and giving out, but it became apparent Dad was seriously ill, and Charlie grew up with Dad as well, because we lived on the same street and he was always in our house. But Dad was adamant «You’ve got to get back to the music, you’ve got to get these songs written and all», so he was always a great champion of the band, and so we ended up with this song «Vision Thing» which was written right then, that was the music we were working on at that time, so the song became a tribute, not just to Dad but we realised that when we were young we were brought up by some great people, our teachers and a great community, so the song is in praise of them, although they wouldn’t have known anything about the world we have spent our lives in, they gave us the tools, somehow, to become the people we are within that world, and that was a great gift.
Indeed. On another song on the album, I was stuck by the lyric «First, you jump / Then get wings» – what a beautiful image. Can you explain what’s behind that? It sounds very optimistic.
– There’s a friend of mine’s daughter, he has a teenage daughter – a lot of kids seem to have anxieties which my generation didn’t have, or complexities my generation didn’t have – or they weren’t discussed – but, anyway, I knew the girl, and I wanted to offer a song to that generation, and it sounds glib but it’s just saying «Keep the faith», jump in, don’t be afraid. It’s often the fear of something itself that kills you, not the thing, and it was trying to find a poetic way of saying that. So, when Ged came up with this music, Ged Grimes our bass player, it was a really great, strident piece of music, and I could almost feel this floating or flying in it, and the lyric would really match up with that. I have to say, even if I say so myself, it’s a hell of way to start the record, those first two, three songs, they’re so there.
– I was going to say – you put it beautifully yourself – the music behind the lyric also expresses that feeling, but you’ve put it into words and it matches perfectly. I’m really looking forward to seeing that one live, if you’re going to tour the album, at some point?
– You might be able to see that quite soon, because we’re on – you know that BBC show «Later»?
– Yes.
– A couple of nights ago, we just did the two new songs. I think it goes out in a couple of weeks’ time, and they sounded very good.
«Later with Jools Holland»? That one?
– Yes.
– Great show. You mentioned writing with Ged, who you wrote a couple of songs with on this album. Was that a first? Because I know he did some work, if I’m not mistaken, on «Lost Boy», but I don’t know if he wrote with you before or not – is this the first time you’ve written with him?
– Yeah, Ged and I worked on «Lost Boy» and then gradually Ged became a fixture, and a great, great collaborator, and him and I continued working, but it was always like «It has to be great, Ged, it has to be great». He had a few things that were really, really good, but it has to be great.
– Yeah, it does!
– And when he came up with the music for «Solstice Kiss», which is great – it’s great piece of music – so, it’s great, it’s like another engine that you can strap on, and the band that we have currently, they all bring added impetus, added energy, creativity, and at this stage of the game you really need that.

– The Simple Minds live experience is really vibrant. Another question I wanted to ask was about «Belfast Child». I remember seeing it on Top of the Pops as a child in Belfast, in the middle of The Troubles. I thought «What? I matter? A Belfast child is acknowledged outside of Belfast?» It was a bizarre experience, but also wonderful, so thank you for that. I wanted to know what was behind that and what inspired that song. I know it was The Troubles in general, but was there something more specific, a particular event perhaps?
– Well, the first thing I want to say is really, thank you for that, because – before I go into the song – quite soon after we did the song, it was reviewed in NME or something, and I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he was from Northern Ireland, and he killed us.
– What?!
– He just hated it, and: «Who are you to write this stuff» and all that.
– Oh my goodness.
– And even though it was Number One, his voice got in my head, and it’s been in my head for years and years. And, how would I feel being a Glasgow kid and someone writing about Glasgow… I mean, it’s a ridiculous thing, but he got in my head, and so every time I hear someone from Belfast that likes the song, I think «Oh, thank God for that» and in fact we just played there again recently, we played in Custom House Square in Belfast, and what a night we had, and to the play song there, and all that, it was just a great, great night. Arguably the best night of the tour – there’s two or three – but Belfast was definitely up there.
– Wonderful.
– Anyway, going back to what you say, the whole thing, how the song came about was so unlikely. I mean, all our big songs [laughs] are never meant to be. The Breakfast Club was never meant to be… Belfast Child, the protagonist was really Trevor Horn. When we were working with him, he came up to the studio we had in Scotland, very much just at the foot of the Highlands, and he said «You know, you should do a kind of celtic song, you should do that» and I was a bit like «That’s never gonna happen, that’s not our thing». But he was «You should really think about it…» he kind of planted the seed. And, it wasn’t about Enniskillen, but round about that time Enniskillen happened and it was in the air. And I certainly didn’t feel, we grew up with – well, you know that – on a clear day from Larne you can see Belfast, I mean…. Thankfully what went on in Belfast didn’t come to Glasgow, but it could easily have. So, we grew up empathising and as such it’s part of us. So, inevitably, I did think at some point, particularly around that Street Fighting Years album, when we taking the big themes, ’cause when you’re a writer – and I was still a young man at the time – you want to test yourself with the big themes, the big themes of the day. There was the whole Mandela thing, and we really weren’t big fans of Margaret Thatcher at all, and songs about the poll tax and all that. And I remember that being in the air, and the most unlikely thing, the bass player we had at the time then, a guy called John Giblin who was older than us, and John had come originally from a folk background. We were in the studio and we had actually broken for dinner, and John didn’t come in for dinner, and although he was a bass player, he could play keyboards as well, so I went back to the studio, and John was very much concentrated, playing this amazing melody, unknown to me. I remember at the end of it – he had written a few songs as well – and I thought «this is a new thing John has written». ‘Cause he would never come up and say «I’ve written a song», you had to be messing around and you say «what’s that, John?». It was a startling piece of music, and I said «Wow, John, that’s amazing, when did you write that?» and he said «About a thousand years ago» and I said «What are you talking about?» and then he explained it was «She Moved Through the Fair», a traditional song.
– A beautiful song.
– And I became obsessed with the song, and I tracked down as many versions of it I could, different people doing it, and believe it or not, my favourite version I came across was an inebriated woman singing it in a pub in Camden.
– Oh, fantastic.
– Just amazing. I don’t know how I came across that or who gave me it, it was amazing, hairs on the back of the neck solo singing, no music. I became obsessed with the song, and Trevor Horn saw my obsession and said «Why don’t you take the melody and write your own words?» And I said «How can you do that?» and he said «That’s the history of folk music, people – it gets handed through generations.» So, between the feeling in the air, between events, that’s how it came to pass.

– Fascinating. I hope I can find that version somewhere. I think I’ve heard Sinead O’Connor sing it.
– She’s amazing – Amazing.
– Yeah, she is. I wanted to go all the way back to 1979 and «Premonition”. Charlie’s guitar work is phenomenal, especially for the time, I’m not sure anyone sounded like that before 1979, on the guitar. Can you remember anything about writing it or how it evolved?
–  Yeah, Charlie’s work on it is great, but it was really a Derek Forbes initiative, because he’s got that amazing bass line, and Micky (Mick MacNeil, keyboards) as well, and they were just locked into this brooding, hypnotic, strident thing, and – well, I said brooding, there was something ominous about it. There’s actually not a lot to it, and then it comes to the chorus where it just explodes, Charlie has these chords. It’s intense young men making intense music, but with, I think, a great beauty inside it.
– Lastly, I just wanted to ask about forty-five years as a band from 1977, that is remarkable. What’s the secret? I suspect it’s the relationship with Charlie, but can you talk about that a little?
– There is, well, Charlie and I – well, so many people have played a part, and so many people have brought stuff to it and still do – we were talking about Ged there – but going back to the early days, and even people around us – we’ve been blessed to work with great, great people in all their capacities. But, there is this thing with Charlie and I, we kind of say, not in a disparaging way – some people are sprinters and other people are marathon men, and we’re definitely marathon men, and although we would never say it to each other, we feel that for us the band is a kind of crusade. That’s a heavy word. A crusade for what?  A crusade to maximise whatever little talent we have, and if you’ve been given a talent, you’ve been given a gift, no matter what it is, it’s your kind of duty to really, we feel, get the maximum. So, we’ve always had that and we continue to have it, but apart from that, we just love it. Taking about the music, I’m Simple Minds’ biggest fan, I just love the music, I’ve never got bored with it. There have been times I’ve got bored with myself, but I just love the music, I love what it does, I love what it does to me. If it didn’t do that, we couldn’t spend days, weeks, months, years cultivating it and still doing it, especially now, because we are so bloody rewarded, we could just go to the beach and eat ice cream, let’s be honest, but no. It’s a mysterious thing, even though there’s this trajectory that happened there, where I met this guy, and it’s all there, but there’s still something mysterious about it all, and that has an allure which still keeps Charlie and I full of desire, and let’s be honest, we won’t get another forty-five years out of it, that’s for sure. But we’ll certainly give the next five years a good go, and then we’ll see what’s what.
Wonderful, and back to Norway soon at some point, I hope.
– Yeah, yeah, great. We had a good time in Norway in the summer then as well, we did a couple of in a little amphitheatre up above Oslo.
Yeah, Over Oslo festival. Thanks again for time today, Jim.  I can’t believe that NME guy regarding «Belfast Child»!
– Well, you know what, your voice will now replace his voice.
Wow. Thank you!
– Great talking to you – you’re a pal! See you!

Originally published in Norway Rock Magazine #5/2022