Interview: Jim Kerr talks album, tour with Simple Minds
Simple Minds

Jim Kerr is keen on making sure America won’t forget about Simple Minds.

The Scottish singer behind quintessential ‘80s hits “Alive and Kicking,” “Sanctify,” and The Breakfast Club smash “Don’t You Forget About Me” just wrapped a European tour with the Glasgow-based group. Now Simple Minds have the States back in their sights.

Following a team-up with The Pretenders in August, the band’s first North American tour in years will propel Kerr and company through two dozen cities—including dates in New York, Nashville, Cleveland, and Chicago—in September and October of 2018. You can bet they’ll perform all the chart-toppers you remember from high school and college, but the Minds are dead-set against staging a meager nostalgia trip.  

In fact, half of Simple Minds’ show will highlight tunes from their recently-released eighteenth studio album, Walk Between Worlds—along with material from other post-millennium efforts Big Music (2014), Graffiti Soul (2009), Black & White 050505 (2005), and Cry (2002).

Kerr has been writing and recording with guitarist Charlie Burchill for four decades now, so both men are determined to remind casual listeners that Simple Minds were (and are) about much more than just their 1985 movie hit. To that end, Walk Between Worlds combines the band’s best elements—namely, Kerr’s deep, soulful pipes and Burchill’s shimmery chords—with kinetic, contemporary rhythms and electronic textures that ground the entire affair firmly in the here-and-now of 2018.

We rang Kerr at home in Scotland last week to discuss the disc and forthcoming tour. The intelligent, affable singer was on-point about Simple Minds’ past, optimistic about the future, and grateful for the “Glittering Prize” of a career that continues to excite, challenge, and uplift his band and his listeners.

AXS: Hi, Jim! We’re happy to be talking with you about the new album and tour. It’s a great opportunity for American fans that missed out on seeing Simple Minds in concert back in the day.

JIM KERR: Fantastic! We’re really excited. I’m trying to figure the last time we were in your parts, in Ohio. It’s got to be twenty years ago. I remember having great gigs in Ohio. And I’ve got some personal connections there as well. So we’re looking forward to it.

AXS: Tell us a bit about writing and recording Walk Between Worlds. Word has it some of the songs were holdovers from your last solo project, Lostboy.

JK: Certainly one song I remember in particular that I did as a session around the time of Lostboy was “Sense of Discovery.” It was co-written by a fellow called Owen Parker. It had more of a Simple Minds thing about it than anything else. The melody was one of the ones that when people heard it, it was picked out. I thought, well, we can hold this back for some time in the future. And that came to pass with Walk Between Worlds. But yes, some of the songs were written in the months leading up. But pretty much it was a head of steam thing. Over the last ten years Simple Minds put out a few albums. And the way we work now, often we’re writing just for the sake of writing. So when it’s time for an album to come together, it’s no longer about just the last ten songs you wrote. Sometimes you’ll get an idea from the past that seems to fit well with a current batch, or whatever. We’re just always stocking up and putting things in the pool. Then at the right time you say, “Okay, what have we got here? Which ones make sense for this record?”

AXS: The new song “Summer” is such a positive, anthem-like song. You really capture that born-again feeling of the season, and the dichotomy of rain vs. sunshine.

JK: Oh, for sure! Even as kids we notice even just the light of summer. In winter it starts to feel dark around half past three on a dull day. Whereas in summer...if it wasn’t a school day, we could stay out playing until nearly eleven o’clock because it was still light! We were in the north of Norway, where it spookily is light at midnight, and these festivals we were doing…the whole place gets loaded for two days! It’s like a Viking festival! You go in, and in the woods and around the trees there’s this eeriness in the light where one o’clock in the morning like a half-daylight, half-darkness. Everyone was overwhelmed by it, and I was trying to capture some of that vibe in the song.

AXS: “Utopia” speaks to the ability music has to take the listener to other worlds, to help them escape the instant they drop the needle on the record.

JK: Well, certainly in my case, there’s this power of rock music we had growing up, that the whole culture of listening to records at each other’s houses, or even just listening in your bedroom where you observed everything about it—the sleeve notes, the artwork. It transported you! And you didn’t even know why. When I really think about it, I was probably thinking about that first Patti Smith record that I played until the grooves were gone! It just took me to this other place, this “great feeling” place that I refer to as a utopia.

AXS: And yet sometimes these days we get so attached to our headphones and cell phones and computer screens that we inadvertently forsake reality and nature. Kids, especially!

JK: Well, I’m guilty of that as well! We all are! But the balance is I love hill-walking and hiking outside. It’s my way of tuning in to the powers around us, out there where you can see the stars at night. We work within this technological sphere and we come to depend on it, but with the songs you still want to draw on those basic human sensations. So the song is kind of calling to that, you know? Get out there! Get out below the heavens and the atmosphere! It’s that polarity…even in the title of the album, Walk Between Worlds. You can dip in and out of things.

AXS: The first single, “Magic,” is another winner. It really taps into the power of the elemental forces in nature. It’s a nice homage to the power of love and healing…and music.

JK: I was like, “You can’t write a song called ‘Magic!’” It’s so overused. I’m not a musician, really; I’m a singer. But when these guys start playing, it is magic. It’s easy to take for granted. Especially when you grow up with music and work in music, it’s easy to think it’s just there. But whether it’s music or the other fundamental powers around us, I came around to, “Yes, you can write about it! Write about it in your own way!” I wrote it from the perspective being young and optimistic. You’ve yet to be beaten up, so you believe anything is possible! And that’s a good philosophy to buy into if you really mean it. You can use it as a driving force.

AXS: Walk Between Worlds does a great job capturing the essence of Simple Minds—your voice, the sounds and style fans have come to love—while also using some more contemporary sounds. It’s an engaging listen, beginning to end.

JK: Contemporary, yeah! Well, that’s the trick. That’s what we all want, and when we make an album people will say, “Make it like the old stuff, but make it like now!” You know it’s a contradiction, but you also know what they mean…and they’re right! So the trick is to change…but not to change! You want to maintain the culture, the DNA of the group, but somehow come at it without repeating yourself. You don’t want to do a conscious retroactive thing. I mean, you could, but that’s not really for us.

AXS: The disc ends with a terrific in-concert take on “Dirty Old Town,” the Ewan MacColl song most people identify with The Pogues. Who is the female you have singing with you? She’s amazing.

JK: Oh, Sarah Brown, she’s great. She’s been with us performing and recording for a good decade or so. She’ll be with us when we come to your neck of the woods. She’s so good. Backing singers are sometimes ten-a-penny, but she’s way too good, and she should be right up front! So I always try to find a song for her, something not so obvious. She comes from a gospel background. Ewan MacColl wrote that song about Manchester even though he’s a Scot. He wrote it about the way it was in the ‘60s when it was this grey industrial town. We played a show in Manchester the day after [May 23, 2017] that horrible bomb explosion at the concert last year. We weren’t sure we were going to go ahead with our show there [at Bridgewater Hall], but we somewhat simultaneously we said, “We should do it, and we should do something for Manchester.” So we got that song, and Sarah sang it at a sound check. It was a moment in time that was calm and poignant.

AXS: That track was recorded at the London Palladium just a year ago. If that’s any barometer of how you guys will sound in concert this Fall, fans are in for a real treat.

JK: Yeah! When we started out we were so naïve about everything, but we did have this idea in our heads that we not only wanted to be in a band, but that we wanted it to be a great live band. And here we are four decades later, blessed to still be getting the chance to work with that challenge. And we’re keen when we get out there, to places we don’t get to go through there as regularly as we’d like. We can guarantee that we’ll be giving the best account of ourselves! And of course, we’ll be playing all the songs from the catalog, the songs people expect to hear. I can confidently predict you’ll see a band on fire!