Jim Kerr Talks About Simple Minds' Hot New Tour and Top-5 Album
Simple Minds’ latest album, Walk Between Worlds, pierced the Top 5 on the Official U.K. Album Charts earlier this year, and the band is receiving rave reviews on its current world tour. Cofounder and frontman Jim Kerr, along with original guitarist Charlie Burchhill and a full band, will perform at Atlanta Tabernacle on October 8, 2018. I recently caught up with Kerr to discuss Simple Minds’ past and present, and how it feels to be in the spotlight again after being away from many North American stages for decades.
We begin our conversation with a discussion about the video for the new song, “Magic,” in which a male dancer twirls inside pixels of smoke as electronic beats thump. At first, the spacey visuals look more like a scene from the Netflix sci-fi show Black Mirror than a promo spot by a Scottish rock band touting its eighteenth studio album. But Kerr insists the clip’s 3D-futurism is intentional (after all, the album is called Walk Between Worlds). At 58, he says he is grateful he wasn’t required to star in the video’s bare-breasted acrobatic dance routine. “The last thing anyone wants to see is some jowly Scotsman jumping up and down without a shirt,” Kerr laughs. “My life has always been about the wrong pants.”
Kerr recalls the years when he and Burchill pranced across MTV in their beloved 1980s vids, including “Alive and Kicking” and “All the Things She Said.” The group’s wardrobe at the time included rainbow-striped trousers and white jeans “printed with images of dollar bills.” Like U2, Simple Minds spared us the heinous hair shellac and flimsy sound production of the era. At the height of the band’s popularity, Kerr’s baritone vocals and onstage swagger positioned him as a sort of New Wave incarnation of The Doors’ Jim Morrison––and a bit of a heartthrob, too. He has married and divorced twice (to Pretenders star Chrissie Hynde, with whom he has a daughter, and to actress Patsy Kensit, with whom he has a son), and admits to the difficulties of parenting while juggling the demands of touring and recording in the 1980s.
As for his reputation in the U.S., Kerr says he is proud of Simple Minds’ moody 1985 number-one smash, “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” even if it is the band’s only hit it didn’t write. The theme song from The Breakfast Club remains a cultural touchstone for Generation X more than three decades after it topped the charts: At the 2015 Billboard Music Awards, Simple Minds performed the Keith Forsey-penned tune to mark the 30th anniversary of the John Hughes film while the movie’s leading lady, Molly Ringwald, stood in the audience on the front row beside Millennial singer Taylor Swift. The moment when the two women toasted Simple Minds with their smartphones in the air, the proverbial pop-culture baton was passed from one teen idol to the next, a gazillion memes were born––and Simple Minds earned a bit of 21-century cred.
Now, a full forty years after its 1970s start in Glasgow, Simple Minds hope Walk Between Worlds can keep pace with the future. Luckily, the collection pulses with an ageless energy––and syncs remarkably well with the speed of the digital age: “Signal and the Noise” is an expansive statement about the distractions of modern technology set to bubbling synthesizers and guitars; a nod to the band’s hometown, “Barrowland Star,” stirs with string arrangements recorded at Abbey Road Studios; “Utopia” snakes to a slinky groove; and the album’s title cut balances mid-life doubts with carpe diem as Kerr’s chorus vows, “Brother, the heart starts beating now.”
Kerr says recent songwriting sessions resulted in an unexpected joie de vivre after he and Burchill had previously struggled to rediscover the dynamism that defined older favorites such as 1984’s “Waterfront” and 1991′ “Stand By Love.” “There was a period about ten years ago when we were flat-lining,” the singer remembers of the time between 2005’s Black and White 050505 and 2014’s Big Music. “We asked ourselves, ‘Do we want to go around like punch-drunk boxers trading on past glories or do we want to commit to this thing 100%?’ Without that [inner] fire, we’re nothing.”
The good news is the fire is still here, and Simple Minds’ gigs are as hot as ever.
SIMPLE MINDS played at Live Aidin 1985 for Ethiopian aid; and in February 1989, the band topped the British charts with a double single featuring “Belfast Child” (an A-Side ballad about the 1987 Remembrance Day IRA bombing in Northern Ireland) and “Mandela Day,” a flipside plea written two years before South African leader Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Kerr says the latter number was inspired by his own travels to the African continent in the early 1980s, as well as by Steven Van Zandt’s 1985 gathering of musicians and activists for the Artists United Against Apartheid album (“Sun City”). Kerr also remembers an important phone call from Jerry Dammers of Brit ska band The Specials (“Free Nelson Mandela”), who invited Simple Minds to headline a June 1988 tribute concertcelebrating Mandela’s 70th birthday at London’s Wembley Stadium. “It was easy for artists to turn up at those big benefit concerts, sing their hits and not say much,” Kerr says. “But that didn’t seem right to us. We thought we needed an original song, something special to bring attention to the anti-apartheid movement, so we wrote ‘Mandela Day’ to commemorate it.” The band went on to perform as a headliner in several other Mandela tributes over the years. “Originally, Margaret Thatcher labeled Mandela a terrorist,” Kerr says. “But [this year, as the world commemorates what would haven been Mandela’s 100th birthday] he’s looked upon as a human rights hero.”
Walk Between Worlds is a respectable addition to Simple Minds’ massive catalog, but Kerr doesn’t mind if people still stop him on the street to tell him they “loooooove that song from the Molly Ringwald movie.” “We continue to thank our lucky stars it came our way,” he says. As for the current concert tour, where new and old favorites such as “Signal and the Noise,” Waterfront,” and “Alive and Kicking,” are usually part of the setlist, Kerr says,”We never stopped playing live [over the years]. So, hand on heart, I can tell you that when we get there, the energy will be amazing.”
© 2018 Kristi York Wooten
Simple Minds perform “Sanctify Yourself” at the Beacon Theatre in NYC on October 2, 2018: