Simple Minds' Jim Kerr on What It Takes to Be a Great Live Band

Simple Minds headlines the Paramount Theatre on Thursday, October 18.
Simple Minds headlines the Paramount Theatre on Thursday, October 18. Dean Chalkley

Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr says he and guitarist Charlie Burchill are always working on songs. It’s not like it was during the Glasgow-based rock band’s rise to fame in the early ’80s, when the bandmates would get six weeks to record and go with the first ten ideas they had. They’re always stockpiling songs or song ideas.

“And at a certain point, we look and we see what’s there,” Kerr says. “But we also go back into the vault, and quite often there’s stuff, ideas that we would be excited about, but for whatever reason there would be something missing or we never quite cracked it or sometimes some of the ideas we were most excited about would slip through our fingers. They would get lost in the mist of time or they would just get submerged under the new stuff.”

When it came time to start work on last February's Walk Between Worlds producer Andy Wright wanted to listen to everything. Kerr told him, “Well, good luck, because there’s tons of it.”

But Wright picked out a few things that Kerr and Burchill had forgotten about. “Not only were we enthusiastic about the quality of them, but for some strange reason it felt that the time was right for them,” Kerr says, “and that quite often dictates why we would have set about them freshly again.”

Sometimes something will happen to give new value or an added meaning to an older song that they’d been working on. Take “Barrowland Star,” for example. The music, which was strong and cinematic, was already there, but Kerr says he couldn’t find his voice inside the song.

That was until Kerr met a fan of Simple Minds a couple years ago on the street in the Glasgow City Centre. The guy told Kerr that night that he was going to the Barrowland Ballroom, the infamous Glasgow venue where the video for the 1983 Simple Minds hit single “Waterfront” was shot, to see his son’s band play.

“I said, ‘That’s cool,’” Kerr says. “And he said, ‘Isn’t that great? Just to play in the Barrowland.' And the enthusiasm in his eyes and the pride in his eyes. And I said, ‘You’re right, it’s absolutely great! Incredible, well done.

“I went home that afternoon and I wrote the song called ‘Barrowland Star,’ which people were saying was about us or me. But I was talking about this guy’s son turning up to play, their nervousness. He told me they were scared. They were afraid. They wanted it to go well so much. All that stuff. Sometimes from the unlikeliest sources an idea for a lyric or something, and you finally crack it.”

Kerr says songs on the first half of Walk Between Worlds felt spritely and young, reminding him of the material the band did in its early days; the other songs were a lot more reflective, coming from more of an elderly perspective.

Walk Between Worlds finds Simple Minds not only with a new lineup (Kerr and Burchill have been the only constant members since the band formed in 1977), but the album also aligns with the band’s organic evolution over the past four decades.

“Much of it was just going on a hunch, going on a feel or going on an enthusiasm,” Kerr says. “Sometimes that would take us to great places. Sometimes I think it took us… maybe the idea was good, but the timing was wrong or something. but by and large it’s been an organic thing. One thing that we do have and have always had is a very wide and broad taste in music.

“When people say to me 'Simple Minds,' I’ll say, ‘Which sound? The art-rock sound or the stadium-rock sound or is it the Celtic folk sound? Or is it the electro sound? Or is it some of our songs that were the first to be adopted in the dance clubs back in the ‘80s?”

And the ’80s were quite good for the group, thanks to singles albums like New Gold Dream (81/82/83/84), Sparkle in the Rain and Once Upon a Time, which contained the hits “All the Things She Said,” “Alive and Kicking” and “Sanctify Yourself.” There was also “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” which the band didn’t write but reluctantly recorded in an afternoon for the 1985 John Hughes film The Breakfast Club.

Part of Simple Minds’ evolution over the years has been partly about changing with the times, but Kerr says it was also about just being a great live band.

“It still was all about what’s it going to sound like on stage,” Kerr says. “What are the dynamics going to be? Can you get in front of a crowd and play? That’s still really where we made the impact. And eventually, whatever success we had, for the most part, grew out of that.”

Kerr says to be a live band takes consistency, which sometimes people forget.

“To be a great live band or to be great at anything, you usually have to do it a heck of a lot,” he says. “Because that’s how you learn and that’s how you get good, and that’s how you get great, by really honing it. To put in that time and to put in that energy, to put in that effort. That’s a great determination and drive and commitment. Much more than talent. I mean, you can be born talented and have a talent, and some people are amazingly talented, almost to spite themselves.”

The band's Denver concert, which will be its first in more than a decade, will include two sets and a lot of the songs fans expect to hear.

"But we go back to the start," Kerr says. "We bring it up to the present. We try and go a lot in between, add in a few surprises. But at the end of the night we really make you feel good."

Simple Minds, 8 p.m. Thursday, October 18, Paramount Theatre, 303-623-0106, $39.50-$69.50.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon