Scottish band Simple Minds have always been something of an anomaly. Formed in 1977, they released a string of underground post-punk/new wave albums before striking it big in the mid-’80s with the singles “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” (from the Breakfast Club soundtrack), “Alive and Kicking” and “Belfast Child.”
Those hits were clearly welcome — success should never be sneered at. But they did define the band to a degree — as an ’80s band with an arena pop-rock sound. That keeps the crowds coming when the band tours, but it’s also a smidge limiting. First two albums Life In a Day and Real to Real Cacophony are gritty and overlooked, and there’s a gradual evolution in the subsequent years to the sound closely associated with the band. All of that material is worth hearing.
Walk Between Worlds, their 18th studio album, came out in February. Not unusually, the reviews have been great, as has the response from fans. Simple Minds may not be in their commercial pomp but they have a large and loyal following, and artistically they’re still firing.
“It seemed from the things people were saying that we hit the target,” says frontman Jim Kerr. “The target was something we managed to conjure up — the old style of Simple Minds. Yet at the same time be contemporary, be of the moment. You don’t want to do some retro exercise. It’s just not an easy thing to get the balance right.”
“Nowadays with the albums, the industry is so changed,” adds Charlie Burchill, guitarist and the only other remaining founding member alongside Kerr. “You put an album out and the most you can hope for is a kind of longevity. The thing is with this one, we got an amazing response to it. There’s been an overwhelmingly positive response to the album. We’re currently on tour, and we’re playing three or four songs from it. That’s half the album. The response has been great, and it’s hanging around, which is the hardest thing to do in these times. Making it stay there.”
In recent years, Simple Minds has been remarkably prolific, enjoying a creative burst following the lull that was the ’90s. For Kerr, the fact that the band lost so much momentum in that decade inspires mixed feelings; regret but also a hunch that they needed the break. Burchill agrees.
“We decided a while back there that we would get to work, to put all these things right and clarify what the band is, what it’s always been and what it’s doing,” Burchill says. “But we really consciously wanted to put an emphasis on quality. So we decided that if we were going to make albums, they’ve really got to be as good as we possibly think they can be. We really have a duty here to make them have an authenticity and a quality to them. But of course you can’t control that. You can only hope that’s what happens. But we were lucky enough that, ever since we did the Graffiti Soul album, Black & White 050505, Big Music, they all got received really well, and I think that’s brought us back. Walk Between Worlds has helped big time now.”
While Burchill says he is inspired by sounds around him, dabbling and experimenting with guitars and keyboards, lyricist Kerr is far more conceptual and contextual, pulling in influences from all around.
“It’s usually when the songs are written that you look back and say, ‘Oh God, is that what we were on about?’,” Kerr says. “Yesterday, the songs I was writing yesterday seem to be about apathy. The songs themselves weren’t apathetic but they’re about apathy. Now, I can’t tell you what leads me to write about that — that just comes out. It’s observations, things that strike you, it could be a conversation you heard or things that you read, something you saw, and it kind of announces itself. Whereas I think a lot of the songs on Walk Between Worlds are, if anything, about empathy, how we empathize, and why some people much more seem to have this empathy whereas others don’t give a fuck.”
This week, Simple Minds play L.A., traditionally a warm (in every way) stop on their world tours.
“Back in the day, there was a funny attitude,” Kerr says. “I’m talking about the early ’80s, and L.A. was getting a bad rap. We turned up and thought it was great. From Glasgow, how could you not love L.A.? As soon as you touch down, it was like wow. Through the years, we’ve worked there and recorded there, and always looked forward to it.”
This will be the band’s first show in L.A. for a good while, so Kerr says they’ll be pulling out all the stops. The set is split in two, as they attempt to check all of the boxes.
“We go way back,” Kerr says. “Obviously people will hear songs from that big mid-’80s period as well, but we go right back for the hardcore. We obviously feature some of the new stuff, with a few surprises in between. Very high-energy set. It’s extensive because it’s two sets. Whatever we’re doing, we seem to be getting it right, because people have been jumping up and down and going nuts.”
When the tour is over, the band go straight back into the studio to work on the new album. Burchill says he’s been writing on the road, so the ongoing chain of new Simple Minds material looks set to continue.
“We’ve got all the songs,” Burchill says. “They’re not fully formed yet but a good substantial part of them. That’s the way we like to be when we go into the studio. It would be great to go in there with everything totally prepared. But it’s really difficult to do that. And anyway, when you’re in the studio the idea is that they take on a life of their own. There has to be somewhere for them to go.”
Whatever they’re doing, it’s working.
Simple Minds play at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the Orpheum Theatre.