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The Jim Kerr Interview

After 30 years, I know this sounds mad... but the best of Simple Minds is yet to come.

Alan Morrison

SIMPLE things amuse Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr these days. Things like checking up on his football team, listening to new albums, dashing down ideas for his internet blog, keeping in touch with his kids.

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And yet, the very fact he is Jim Kerr means these things are never quite as simple as they appear on the surface.

He's not just a Celtic fan; he was part of a consortium that wanted to gain a major shareholding in the club in 1998. He doesn't just keep an idle ear out for new releases; he's scoping the competition as an artist who still tours and records with his own band. He's not just playing dad; he's successfully strengthening relationships that otherwise might have become casualties of a couple of failed rock-star marriages.

"I've always been somebody who lives on the fringe," he tells me, "geographically or whatever. I sleep five hours, I get up at 4am, I take three or four cold showers a day. I do things differently. I'm not a loner, but I spend so much time alone, even on tour. But when it's time to do my work, I'm in there. So I'm a bit fringe, floating out there, but still very much connected to things that I need."

When I meet Kerr in a London hotel, he is at the midway point between band rehearsals and the start of a UK arena tour marking 30 years of Simple Minds, formed way back in 1978 from the ashes of Glasgow punks Johnny And The Self Abusers. He is looking tanned, happy with the new songs that have come out of recording sessions in the summer, at ease with the fact he turns 50 next year. He is, in fact, a man with a secure sense of who he is: rock star; hotel owner; father; son; Glaswegian; resident of London, Nice, and Taormina in Sicily; political campaigner; 1980s pin-up. All of the above.

"I'm intrigued by my own schizoid background," he says, "which involves Scotland, Ireland and London. My kids are in London, my parents are in Glasgow, their roots were pro-Irish. It seems very schizoid, but it's who we are - it makes complete sense to me."

Kerr and original guitarist Charlie Burchill have been on the move as Simple Minds since they were teenagers. Indeed, that's part of what they want to celebrate on the forthcoming tour. For all of the group's critical and chart ups-and-downs over the years, they have always remained a potent live act. Kerr calls the albums "snapshots" of a moment caught in the studio. For him, the vast majority of what defines Simple Minds comes from the live experience.

"When you talk about rock bands, it's hard to avoid the clichés," he says, perching closer to the edge of the sofa. "And the biggest cliché is this idea of the road'. But the road has been everything to us. It has carved out who we are, how we eat, what we eat, how we think, what our influences have been. We're talking about 30 years. It stopped being a career a long time ago - it's what we've done with our lives. You can change careers, but your life is your life. So every night that we go on stage, we're saying this is what we've done with our lives'. Every single night we have the desire to play like it's the only night on Earth. I think that's why we still have a career, through the good and the bad and the indifferent."

The good, the bad and the indifferent is a fair summation of Simple Minds' output to date. It's hard to believe that the band who made spiky, post-punk pop on 1979's Life In A Day are the same lot who spread a commercial gloss all over 1985's Don't You Forget About Me. They had already broken the charts earlier in the 1980s with the singles Promised You A Miracle, Glittering Prize and Waterfront, but it was that prominent track from Brat Pack movie The Breakfast Club that gave them their only US number one and boosted them into a mainstream stratosphere - a place to which some of their original fans were not willing to go.

After Live Aid in 1985 (Simple Minds played the JFK Stadium leg in Philadelphia), Kerr's lyrics became more overtly political, culminating in 1989's Street Fighting Years, with its back-to-back trio of Mandela Day, Belfast Child and Biko. It's what the new generation of Simple Minds fans wanted: Belfast Child, based on the traditional Irish melody She Moves Through The Fair, went to number one in the UK.

Their globe-topping position slackened off through the 1990s, however, as Britpop replaced their big stadium sound. Record label Chrysalis refused to release 1998 album Neapolis in the US, while EMI binned 1999's Our Secrets Are The Same completely (it later emerged as part of a boxed set in 2004). But then, in 2005, came Black And White 050505, and the ears of critics and fans pricked up. At times scuzzier than anything they'd done before, applying a rare less-is-more policy on certain tracks, Black And White 050505 suggested that Simple Minds had turned a corner.

And so here we are in 2008, with a new album, recorded during the summer at Rockfield Studios in Wales, ready to be mixed next month, and an anniversary tour about to begin this week. But what to offer the people who will pack out arenas from Wembley to the SECC? Unlike other bands who hit their heights in the 1980s, Kerr, Burchill and co can't be accused of selling out for a nostalgia trip - they've never stopped creating new work. But the 30-year thing has caused some measure of career contemplation, with the result that the set for this tour, while including hits that span Simple Minds' entire back catalogue, will have at its centre the 1982 album New Gold Dream, to be played in its entirety.

New Gold Dream is a good bet for trying out this new live formula. It's a bridge album between the early post-punk, Euro-electro days and the big-sounding, chart-friendly fare on which the band's reputation - rightly or wrongly - tends to rest. Kerr agrees: "New Gold Dream is where the flower came out," he says, "and we became whoever we are."

There's something of a fad at the moment for bands playing classic albums from beginning to end. Then again, there's also panic in the music industry that the album is a dying format and that young listeners only want to download (and, on the odd occasion, actually pay for) individual tracks. It's a phenomenon that Kerr - who has a 16-year-old son, James, and a 22-year-old daughter, Yasmin - believes is generational.

Kerr has managed to remain close to both James (from his marriage to actress Patsy Kensit, who later married Oasis's Liam Gallagher) and Yasmin (from his first marriage to Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde). When I ask him how he set about maintaining his role as a father despite the twin distances of touring commitments and divorce, he shares a story about each of his children.

"With James," he explains, opening up, "I always let it go, whether it was the football or whatever. James is London born and bred, and so it's a different environment for him than it was for me. He'll say to me, You're weird, you talk to everybody, you talk to strangers.' And I think, no, you're weird if you don't. He said to me last year, I'm not supporting England any more. For a start, they're rubbish. Scotland's fans are great and there's the whole Scottish thing and Scottish bands are great.' I didn't say anything; he has found his own way. He knows there's a different identity for him within this.

"As for Yasmin," he continues, "first of all, Chrissie was a fantastic mother and mentor. Her values, as far as I was concerned, were completely rock-on. Yasmin was in Italy with me this year and, of all things, she'd got a tattoo but hadn't really said anything about it. I'm not into this clan stuff at all, but with Kerr' you've got your clan thing, and with ours you've got this Latin phrase sero sed serio', which translates as late, but in earnest', and Yasmin had got it tattooed on her arm. I didn't say anything to her at the time, but then I wrote to her and said, I'm touched that you did that'. We'd never really spoken about her roots, but she said it really meant something to her. These are things the kids have come to off their own bat, as opposed to being bludgeoned by them."

Kerr may have stepped back a bit when bringing up his children, but he certainly gave the rest of us some moral guidance at the tail-end of the 1980s. Amnesty International and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa were his main concerns, and they spilled over into his lyrics. At the time he wasn't alone: it seemed as if every big-name musician had a duty to take a political line on something or other. But with Kerr it's more likely that these feelings had been simmering for some time, just waiting for the right moment to jump out into public view.

"Where I was brought up in Glasgow's Toryglen, you felt you had a fundamental duty to help, whatever it was," he explains. "My grandad had been around the world with the army, and I remember he came back saying, Oh, I loved Cape Town, you have to see this place. But it's a shame for the poor blacks - they're not even allowed to walk on the same side of the street as you.' Now, you're only a wee boy, but some of that comes through, I think.

"There was a defining moment for me when there was a click in my head. I remember when we finally got to number one in the US and were doing an interview on Good Morning America. I asked, How many people watch that?' and was told 32 million. And I remember thinking, jeez, imagine if you had something to say other than your tour and your T-shirt and your record. The presenter said, So Jim Kerr is here: Tell me, what does a Glasgow boy make of New York? What did you do last night?' And I said, I had a really interesting dinner with a guy called Jack Healey, he's the director of Amnesty International.' And before I knew it, I was off and running. So it wasn't a duty. The heart was in the music, so it felt natural for us."

Kerr was indeed off and running, going on to play the legendary Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988, then helping organise Mandela's 90th birthday concert in Hyde Park 20 years later.

"The original concert, as far as I was concerned, was something that came out of anger," he says. "Anger that our government at the time was dragging its feet in its role of finally finishing apartheid. Anger because people were saying Mandela was a terrorist. Whereas fast-forward however many years and here he is, not only the greatest elder statesman in the world but everybody's favourite grandpa. The great thing for me, in the few minutes Charlie and I got to meet him, was his eyes - they're sparkling. He's a wily old fox, full of charm. A lawyer, a boxer. And a fisherman, talking about Scotland - Oh, I'd have loved to have fished there'. But at the same time, still fighting the fight.

"In the great scheme of things, our song Mandela Day was such a tiny part of a footnote when you think of the people who gave their lives or lived under apartheid. But I'm just so glad that we had the balls. It's the same with a song like Belfast Child, which we still play today. The geography changes, but the actual issues don't. You take these huge issues and you try to put them in a pop song - so of course they're going to be a bit pat or glib or clumsy. But not when you're playing them on the night, and the words and the sentiment come together."

If Kerr has lasted the pace in the spotlight for three decades, then that's surely down in part to certain key lifestyle choices he made long ago. A committed vegetarian, he has never really been one for the drink and has steered clear of drugs.

He admits with a smile: "It's been a long time since I did any drinking or debauchery in any notable sense, and that has stood me in good stead. I was brought up on songs like Heroin and Iggy Pop rolling around on the ground with syringes singing I Wanna Be Your Dog. Well, I've worked with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Lou Reed, you couldn't meet a more in-shape guy in your life. And Iggy Pop, who's supposed to be the outcast heroin junkie, he eats only protein and goes to the gym every day. Have they lost their edge? I don't think so. No, they've replaced it with a mental edge. Whereas poor Michael Hutchence, or some of the others who burned the candle at both ends I know what side of the coin I would rather have.

"If someone had come to me when I was 18, an apprentice plumber, and said, Here's the deal. It's going to be mad. You're going to be well out of your depth. You're going to struggle. You're not going to see your kids. There's going to be weirdness. But in return you get this ' I mean, I'd have bitten their hand off. To complain about it would be really churlish. There are sacrifices, and you can't have it all you can never have it all but it's a great deal."

Kerr has retreated into a more reflective mood, something inevitably brought on by thoughts of a 30th anniversary tour. We have talked about how he has grown into his voice over the years, accepting its perceived strengths and weaknesses - "I've got a face that now suits me and I've got a voice that suits me."

We have talked about how he feels ready to move on from his life in Sicily, at the Villa Angela hotel he owns in Taormina. We've also talked about how this particular tour, coupled with hitting his half-century next year, has mentally encouraged him to draw a line under things and look ahead. Someone should call Nelson Mandela and rope him into organising a Jim Kerr 50th birthday tribute concert next July.

"I was thinking about doing this interview today because I've not done an in-depth interview for a long time," Kerr adds. "And when you do an interview, you have an agenda. My agenda, as mad as it sounds - and it will sound mad to people - is that I actually think the best is still to come. You'd need to be a brave man to sit here and say that, considering what has been. But the way the writing has gone for the new album, the way the tunes are popping out - we're up for the cup."

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