Jim Kerr of Simple Minds

by Greg Prato

"I'm more liable to write a line like 'Do forget about me,'" Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr said about their American breakthrough, "Don't You (Forget About Me)."

Thanks to its unforgettable appearance in The Breakfast Club and its cross-format radio appeal, the song topped the Hot 100 in May 1985, giving Simple Minds their American imprint with a song they not only didn't write, but didn't even like.

Their American success remained modest; the follow-up "Alive and Kicking" made #3 in the US, but that was the last time they hit the Top 10 Stateside. In their native UK (the band formed in Glasgow), they have fared far better, with 24 appearances on the Top 40 as they enter their 38th year as an active band.

Simple Minds' 2014 release, Big Music, is another grand production, with Jim's dextrous lyrics surrounding a modern sound that incorporates many of the EDM elements found in today's hits. Jim broke down the band's songwriting process for us and told the tales behind some of their biggest hits, including the one that brings back memories of the Brat Pack.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): If you want to start off talking about the new album, Big Music, just as far as how it came about and also memories of writing it.

Jim Kerr: Yeah. Big Music is a cumulative of four or five years' work. I mean, not nonstop four or five years, because over that time we've been doing a lot of touring.

It's been interesting in the sense that it's been a bit of a parallel existence, because when we tour, we play the songs that the band's created through our entire history. The very nature of that means a great element of nostalgia. And that's fine. But it was always important to us to be working on a new chapter of our story. So we had this coexistence where we'd go on stage at night and it would be a blast from the past. And during the day we'd be giving our thoughts and attention to the new album, Big Music, and pushing on into the future.

Songfacts: And would you say that expectations are also high with this album due to the success of the last album, Graffiti Soul [2009]?

Kerr: I think expectations are always high, especially if you only do an album every four or five years. As we all know, now, trying to get people's time and attention is so hard, so you can't really coast. You've got to come up with something that will hit people instantly. That's all easy to say and talk about, but to actually do it, you've got to make it happen yourself. You can't just go with the first few ideas that come into the palm of your hands. You've really got to go in deep, work on stuff, reject stuff, go back to the drawing board, all of that.

But at the end of the day, this is what we wanted to do. We wanted to create, we wanted to write music, we wanted to play music. And we're delighted that at this stage of the game we're still getting a chance to do that.

Songfacts: How do you find your write your best songs?

Kerr: You know what, we say that the real strong songs - some of the real great ones - just land in our lap. You get an idea and within an afternoon some of the great ones are just there. The other ones arrive and you think there's something good about them, but you find there's something missing and you say, "I've got to work on it." And that "I've got to work on it" stuff can take decades till you actually find the missing piece of the jigsaw, so you put it on the back burner.

I guess what I'm trying to say, there is no one way, really. But we've been writing songs since we were 14, and it's just second nature to us when we see things and we're thinking about things. Charlie Burchill, my songwriting partner, he's the kind of guy who walks around with a guitar. If he's at home, the first thing he does in the morning when he gets up and has his coffee, he sits at the piano. He's not really writing songs, but he's seeing what's inside him.

As a lyric writer myself, I can get a song idea from anywhere. I can get it from listening to a news broadcast, something someone says. I can get it from a two-bit journal. I can pull it out of the air. Unfortunately, I can't do it on tap. If I get the idea but the song doesn't come, then it's about the hard work - rolling up the sleeves and finishing it off.

Songfacts: How would you say, by and large, the songwriting works in Simple Minds?

Kerr: Well, it is pretty much a nucleus. Charlie Burchill, who I mentioned, my guitar player, he and I have known each other since we were eight years old. It's our band. But the people we work with, the rest of the band, also contribute.

1984 was a big year for Jim: Simple Minds released their #1 UK album Sparkle in the Rain (produced by Steve Lillywhite), and he married Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders (they had a daughter, Yasmin, the following year; the couple divorced in 1990).
Charlie and I can work anywhere. In the old days we'd go to the rehearsal room and knock things around and stuff. Now I can be on the other side of the world, Charlie will send me an MP3, and say, "I was messing around with this last night." And I can have something back to him from the other side of the world, and say, "Actually, it made me think of this kind of melody." That's happened.

But we still do it the old way, as well. We still get in a room together and he'll say, "Yeah, I've got these." Maybe we haven't seen each other for a couple of months. He'll say, "I've got about a half dozen ideas." Some of them might be fully formed, others will be a spark. And usually, I'll have a few things in my notebook that will match the atmosphere of what he's been doing.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Kerr: Well, some of my favorite artists, the reason they're my favorite artists is because of the music they made. It is people like The Doors, and we're big David Bowie fans, that's for sure. Roxy Music... we came up in the UK glam rock period. T. Rex. But we also love the Bob Dylans and the Leonard Cohens and the Paul Simons, Springsteen.

Songfacts: Looking back at some of the songs from Simple Minds, if you just want to talk about either the memories of writing it or also the lyrics, let's start with the song "Honest Town" off the new album.

Kerr: Now, that was a pleasure to write. It was beautiful to write, but it came out of pretty tough circumstances. My mother passed away four years ago, but a few weeks before I had come back to Glasgow to spend time in the house with her and my father, and she had been doing very poorly.

Then all of a sudden, one day she came downstairs, fully dressed. She had a spark in her eye, and she said, "I want to go out." And it was a snowstorm. It had been a snowstorm for days. My father said, "You can't go out, I've turned on the radio and no one can go out unless it's an emergency." She looked at me, she said, "I want to go out." I said, "Okay, let's go for a drive."

And we just went on a drive that we always do from our side of the town into the center of town. But in doing it, we passed a lot of landmarks that were important in her life: where she grew up, where I grew up, where she got her first job, where they got married, all this stuff. It was almost like a journey of her life. And as we were doing it, she was saying how happy she had been, how she had loved her life, how she'd loved Glasgow, where we're from.

And she came up with the words, "Honest town." She said it was an honest town, people were great. And it became the song. So that was a song that was based on quite a sad, but in some ways happy event. She was in a great, great mood, and I'm happy that I got the chance to do it with her.

Songfacts: Backing up a little bit, what about the song "Alive and Kicking"?

Kerr: "Alive and Kicking" was a little more obscure when it came out. We had the music first, and it just sounded so glorious, so positive. At the time we were working in America. I remember we recorded some of it upstate in the Catskills and then we came down to finish it off. We were in New York, it was summer, Manhattan. We could feel the band was really on the verge of something, and I think that positivity and that idea of hope formed the lyrics.

Songfacts: What about "Sanctify Yourself"?

Kerr: It came from Jimmy Iovine, who produced us. We had the riff for that. We all like gospel music and we're big fans of Sly & the Family Stone, as well. They were quite an influence on that song.

Songfacts: What about "All The Things She Said"?

Kerr: It was an interview I'd read. I can't remember exactly what publication, but at the time, Europe was still divided - the Berlin Wall was still there. At the time, Poland was trying to get its freedom from Russia, and there were quite a lot of Polish political prisoners in Russia.

There was an interview with wives of guys that had been away for a long time, taken away, and some of the beautiful quotations that the women had used became sort of the background for that song.

Songfacts: What were your initial impressions when the song "Don't You (Forget About Me)" was presented to the band, and were you keen to record it?

Kerr: No, we were not. It was presented in the wrong fashion. This cassette came our way. The song wasn't bad. It didn't resemble in any way the record that you know, but the melody was there, the words were there. It wasn't bad. But I've got to be honest, it didn't feel up to scratch with what we were working on of our own stuff.

So we turned it down a couple of times, and they kept coming back at us, the record company, the film company. And then once we met both the producer, Keith Forsey, and the director, John Hughes, and spoke to them, we then understood the context of it and were a lot more free to the idea of doing it.

Songfacts: What did you think of the movie The Breakfast Club and how well do you think that that song fit in the film?

Kerr: Well, I've got to say that it fit beautifully. I don't know if it was coincidence or what, but you've got to say that it really worked. I mean, the song and the film are almost iconic to certain generations, especially in America. So it's great when things come together and work so well. It's been a pleasure to see how much joy that song gives to a lot of people.

As recounted in most Iggy Pop-related books and documentaries, by the late '70s, the former Stooge was best buds with David Bowie - who either solely produced or co-produced Iggy's two solo efforts from 1977, The Idiot and Lust for Life. And while Bowie didn't produce Iggy's 1980 effort, Soldier, he did co-pen the tune "Play It Safe," and along with Simple Minds, provides backing vocals on the tune.
Songfacts: What are some memories of when Simple Minds sang background vocals on the Iggy Pop album, Soldier, and the song "Play It Safe"?

Kerr: Oh, god, I can't tell you how exciting that was. Can you believe no one had a camera? I mean, no one had a camera in those days. [Laughing] It's like, What?!? But the memory will always be there. I mean, it was so unlikely. The studio was in the Welsh countryside - what's the chance of meeting Iggy Pop in the Welsh countryside? What's the chance of his buddy, David Bowie, tagging along a couple of days later? And what's the chance of them knocking on your door and saying, "We need a few extra voices here"? And lo and behold, that's what it was.

I've been really lucky. I've got to sing with not only two of my heroes in that case, but I also got to sing on a few tracks on Peter Gabriel's solo album [So]. And we had Lou Reed sing on our album [This Is Your Land]. These are all the guys that "heroic" is definitely the word.

Songfacts: Were the sessions as wild as you would think an Iggy Pop session in the late '70s, early '80s would be?

Kerr: Well, in the Welsh countryside there's not a lot of stuff you can get up to. But there was plenty of cans of beer. And at the end of the night, everyone had the munchies. I remember David Bowie eating a lot of cheese and thinking, I didn't think David Bowie would be a cheese-eating guy. I don't know why I thought that. But he was enjoying himself.

January 9, 2015. For more Simple Minds, visit their official site.
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Comments: 3

  • Gladys Mokomane from FrancistownI love Jim and will always love his singing and wish he would come to my country Botswana to play for charity and help orphans.
  • Bill from UsSome songs and a group that will always be apart of my, and a LOT OF PEOPLE'S psyche.
    AND this is a perfect example of why this website is so cool, what a great interview. Thanks Jim Kerr, for the group, and talking here.
  • Shawn from MarylandWow! Very cool interview. "All the Things She Said" will take on a new meaning to me! Very powerful. I will say that Mel Gaynor's drumming is often overlooked. Check out "Come A Long Way". Great interview overall!
see more comments

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