Simple Minds Returns to U.S. for First Time in 11 Years; 'No Cobwebs,' Promises Jim Kerr (Q&A)

 Paul Cox

“Eleven years? That’s an embarrassing gap.”

So says Jim Kerr, lead singer and mainstay of Scotland’s Simple Minds of the group’s lengthy absence from North American shores. Following the March release of hits compilation Celebratethe band, which for the past couple of decades has revolved around Kerr, original guitarist Charlie Burchill and an ever-shifting lineup of backing musicians, aims to rectify that situation with a tour that kicks off in Los Angeles on Oct. 15. Subsequent shows reunite the group with audiences in New Jersey, Washington, Boston, Montreal, Toronto and New York. “I’m confident in saying that the band has really improved,” Kerr, 54, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Some might say, 'Well, he would say that,' but the proof is in the pudding.”

Simple Minds' original incarnation was as Scotland’s premier punk band, Johnny & the Self Abusers, who played their first gig in a Glasgow bar on Easter Monday, 1977. “When we were onstage it was mayhem,” recalls Kerr. “No one could play a note. It was just white noise. We thought, 'There can’t be anything better than this.' It took us about six months to become serious about it.”

The evolution to Simple Minds saw the band gravitate toward their formative influences, David Bowie and Lou Reed. Their debut album, 1979’s Life in a Day, sounded like a pastiche of their favorite artists. “That album was a disappointment even to us,” Kerr admits. Though the follow-up, Real to Real Cacophony, was released the same year, it showcased a very different Simple Minds. This version had a more ominous, more European, more muscular sound. The group would only build and improve with their next few albums, reaching a creative peak in 1982’s New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84), which gave them a Top Three U.K. chart peak.

But while the band's European profile was high and their lush cinematic music met with critical acclaim, America showed little interest. The Steve Lillywhite-produced Sparkle in the Rain, a deliberate attempt to move in a more stadium-rock direction, changed their perception as a moody British synth act and saw them develop a growing U.S following in 1983. But what really altered the standing of Simple Minds in America was a stop-gap single intended to keep interest alive while the band worked on a new album. The single, of course, was “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” the theme song to John Hughes film The Breakfast Club.

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The band was reluctant to record a song they hadn’t written. "We knocked it back a number of times,” says Kerr. Producer/composer Keith Forsey was such a fan of the band and so fixated on the notion of them recording his song that he flew to London to persuade them. “We liked Keith more than his song,” Kerr admits. Nevertheless, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” gave the band its first U.S. No. 1.

Although the song was not included on Simple Minds' next release, 1985’s Once Upon a Time, the album was successful enough to allay any lingering fears that the band might have been the lucky recipient of a soundtrack hit. The first single, "Alive and Kicking,” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and, as recently as last week, ran over the closing credits of East Bound and Down.

As the 1980s drew to a close, it was not inaccurate to mention Simple Minds in the same breath as U2. They were both arena-filling acts whose set lists contained plenty of anthems. They both tended toward the self-important, and they both had charismatic frontmen with growing messiah complexes. When the next decade rolled around, U2 significantly changed the way they approached making music and the way they wanted to be perceived. Simple Minds made no such changes. Their music remained epic, but their appeal waned.

Kerr’s interests have diversified in recent years. He was active on the board of Glasgow soccer team Celtic FC and opened Hotel Villa Angela in Taormina, Sicily. But Simple Minds -- whose 40th anniversary is only a few years away -- are still capable of drawing crowds in Europe. And they're hoping America hasn’t forgotten about them.

Jim Kerr talked to THR about his band’s return to American soil, comparisons with U2, longevity and the state of his knees.

It’s been a while.

It’s embarrassing for us in respect of the people in the States and North America who like the band and have hung in with us. We’ve got it all to make up to them. The band’s in tremendous form. It’s not like we sat in some plateau and now we’re coming off the shelf and we’re shaking off the cobwebs like old football players who haven’t played in ten years.

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On previous American tours, Simple Minds played arenas. How do you look back on those days?

When you go though the door to the big league, your band is no longer your band. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel sorry for us. We’d worked and we’d gone for it. We were pretty gung-ho. I liked our attitude. When we decided we wanted to do something, we did it 100 percent. When we decided we wanted to make it big in America, we did it. We had a rather amazing can-do attitude. Looking back now, at the end of the '80s, one of the things we didn’t have was endless energy. That was 13 years of nonstop recording, writing, rehearsing, touring. The wheels were staring to come off, but we didn’t know that.

You were compared to U2 a lot in those days. But they've since transformed themselves into a sort of self-aware ironic commentary about being in a band. You didn’t really change.

With respect to them, because they’re the greatest live band that I’ve seen, if you read the book that was out recently about The Unforgettable Fire, when they worked with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois for the first time, both of them comment about how [U2] went to them and played them New Gold Dream and said, “We want some of that." I think that speaks volumes. It’s really easy to talk about U2, but there are very few bands that have that talent and all that intelligence, and I think when they came to the start of the '90s, when all the bands that had broken through in the '80s were about to find it tough, they regrouped and brought in an extra brain. Whereas our thing was falling apart; members were leaving. You can’t compare beyond that.

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These North American shows are billed as a "Greatest Hits" tour. Is it a challenge to muster up the enthusiasm to play those well-worn songs?

We’re doing two sets. There’s no support and we’re playing songs from everywhere. A song from Empires and Dance like “This Fear of Gods" or “Premonition,” there’s every chance they’ll hear that, although they’re hardly greatest hits. A good Simple Minds show to me is if the audience hears the songs they expect to hear. The hardcore will be happy they’ll hear songs they never thought they’d hear. We want to give a whole sense of the journey the band’s been on and, within that, show that there’s a chapter to come.

Despite your lengthy hiatus, the biggest-drawing live acts from when you last played here are pretty much the same big-drawing live acts today.

I’m trying to think why that is. It used to be every three or four years another would come through and they would be the big thing. It’s so rare now. With bands of our generation -- I sound like an old man -- it was three or four albums before you broke though, and therefore you learned your trade and you could live up to the hype. We bought into artists and their career because there were less things to do. So you immersed yourself, you became a part of a movement of people who liked the same band, you salivated at every little crumb of new information. Music was so much more valued and precious. I was in the Apple Store in Hamburg [recently], and there as such a buzz about the place that reminded me of record stores in their heyday.

The band's 40-year anniversary is just around the corner. What keeps you going?

The very foundation of what we do as Simple Minds has not changed one bit. We look for a melody, we look for a lyric and an emotion. We record it, we try and get it out there...to get as many people to see it, hear it, come and experience it. That’s what we’ve been doing, andnot one bit of that has fundamentally changed. And thank God for that, because at least there’s still something in this world that makes sense to us.

How are you handling the physical demands of touring?

You hear me knocking on wood? I had an hour’s jog today. I’m going back out for 45 minutes tonight. I’ve got about a month to drop a couple of kilos. I’ll do it, it’ll be good. Famous last words.

Twitter: @jbpeevish

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