Lostboy! AKA Jim Kerr
By Richard Lewis 20/10/2010
Last seen on TV in 2008 fronting Simple Minds before a vast audience at Nelson Mandela’s ninetieth birthday celebration, Jim Kerr’s usual territory in a live environment is arenas and stadiums, having played the US leg of Live Aid, the original awareness raising Mandela concert in 1988 and an arena tour last year that visited Liverpool. His new side project Lostboy! AKA however, finds him trading in the arenas for far smaller venues on the Electroset tour, to promote his eponymously titled LP that was released in May.
Best remembered for hits including Alive and Kicking, Promised You a Miracle, Belfast Child and generational touchstone Don’t You (Forget About Me) from the soundtrack of The Breakfast Club, Simple Minds were one of the biggest selling bands of the 1980s and early 1990s. Their influence on current music makers has become more pronounced in recent years with Killers frontman Brandon Flowers declaring himself a fan, along with Chris Martin of Coldplay. The band’s early material has especially come back into vogue, with their tracks becoming fixtures on the turntable at ultra-hip London indie club Nag Nag Nag.
Before any of this can be discussed however, Jim has more pressing concerns, “What’s going on with your football team?” he enquires on the phone from his manager’s office in Glasgow. A lifelong Celtic fan, he can remember (ahem) happier times. “I grew up with a great Liverpool team and the fans are supposed to give you longer than most others, but their patience must be wearing thin.” Well, quite. Leaving aside the predicament the Reds presently find themselves in, Nerve sets about discussing his new solo project, Simple Minds’ groundbreaking early work and memories of Eric’s in Mathew Street.
Simple Minds’ brace of Eurocentric early LPs, from 1979 to 1983 (which reached their creative peak with New Gold Dream in 1982) were wildly eclectic affairs of arty Krautrock, skewed synth pop and anthemic rock songs that laid the foundations for them to become Eighties million sellers. Their European stylings were replicated in the last decade by fellow Glaswegians Franz Ferdinand, whilst the Manic Street Preachers hailed them as influence as well as lifting their typography (compare the covers of Empire and Dance and the Manics’ The Holy Bible for their inverted letter Rs.) The Velvet Underground, Roxy Music and David Bowie’s seminal, experimental Berlin Trilogy could clearly be discerned in Simple Minds’ music.
Along with these elements was the undertow of German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk and Neu!, which along with bassist Derek Forbes’ highly inventive basslines gave the group a thudding Eurodisco heart, and a jagged edge of their own. Lostboy! AKA according to Jim finds him revisiting many of these early influences.
Formed in 1977, the nucleus of Simple Minds has consisted of Jim and guitarist Charlie Burchill ever since, friends since childhood. Given that Lostboy! AKA features a completely new band, does it feel strange to be stood onstage without Charlie and long standing drummer Mel Gaynor? “Yeah, it’s definitely strange”, Jim replies. “Charlie’s been with me every step of the way, throughout my life almost. The main difference is when I go onstage with Simple Minds, apart from the fact physically it’s a much bigger deal, and you’re there to play songs, arguably they’re songs a generation of people grew up with, there’s a whole catalogue of hits and songs to pull from.”
“With Lostboy!”, Jim continues, “It’s a blank page, it’s like starting from the beginning which is what I was hankering after when I initiated this thing. I’m out there trying to prove it and to build it up and if I make one new fan, it’s like ‘Yeah, great.’ I did promo gigs for some of the bigger radio stations in Europe and that gave me a taste of this format I’m gonna be working with. I want to have my cake and eat it. I want Simple Minds to continue, they’ve been on good form recently, back playing the arenas and all that stuff, this year we did one hundred and twenty gigs and we’re working on songs for a new album as well.”
“I want that it can continue and yet at the same time there’s one frustration with Simple Minds”, Jim states. “It’s that we’re a classic band and like most classic bands, we do an album maybe every three or four years and tour extensively off the back and there’s a lot of downtime. I don’t want downtime! ‘Why are you going around doing this?’ and it’s because I’m into it. I just have this burn, there was a period when I had no energy, I had no ideas and I hated it, so while I’m in the current mode I’m running with it. I was able to create this Lostboy! project in parallel with the ongoing story of Simple Minds.”
Relating this to the new side project: “The great thing about Lostboy! is that everything is done on such a low budget and it’s done at a frantic pace. This whole thing is very much a work in progress; we’re working on the second album now. I’m looking forward to [the tour], it’s a cheap ticket, people might go away thinking, ‘I’m not sure what I saw, but I saw something special.’”
Thinking about the title of the tour, is it fair to say you’ve rediscovered electronica as a major influence? “Well, I did promo gigs for some of the bigger radio stations in Europe and that gave me a taste of this format I’m gonna be working with.”, Jim explains. “One of the things with it was that I wanted to keep my options open; I didn’t want to be stuck to a set format, the songs are great, they work and I did the five-piece band and they were a hell of a band, the only downside for me was, they weren’t really outside my confidence zone. I’ve spent my whole life doing the five-piece band thing! Next year, we’ve been asked to do festivals and then I might take the whole pumping band thing again, but the electro thing is part of the Simple Minds set-up, the influences we heard were coming from the synth and I decided to try that out. I did these gigs in Germany which is the home of electronic music and its electro, but because I’ve got Sarah Brown [Simple Mind’s backing singer] with me with me, it’s like electro-soul. Soul is sweaty, although we’re using the sequencers, it’s not some icy thing, it has grooves.”
In view of Simple Minds’ critical and commercial renaissance, do you think your muse has been rediscovered then? “It’s interesting you say muse” Jim ruminates. “For the longest time I believed in the muse, ‘cos how else would you explain that one day you were on fire and then nothing for three months? I don’t believe in the muse anymore. You’ve just got to get up and go hustle, you’ve got to find the right people to work with, you’ve got to write everyday and get into it. And the more you do the easier it becomes, it’s a bit like using muscles. Whereas before I’d be like, ‘Well the conditions have got to be right and it needs to be quiet, I need to lock myself away in some place for two weeks,’ I’ve got to the stage over the past two or three years where I can write in the back of a taxi! And therefore, as opposed to being an eight, nine songs a year man, I’m a thirty songs a year man and feeling all the better for it.”
Commitments such as family, long tours and promotion duties meant that the focus on songwriting dimmed over time. In view of this, Jim feels that he has almost come full circle. “Back in the eighties we had nothing else in our lives, we weren’t married, there was no big business to look after, you were living day to day, song to song. And you were loving it, it was all so new. You couldn’t believe that you had a record deal and people were paying you to let you get on and make music.”
Explaining further he continues, “Through the years, as your band becomes bigger and becomes and an industry within an industry, the tours get longer and you don’t time to write and you have a life outside of the band. You get married, you have kids, whereas at one point you spent maybe half your time writing songs, then you spend the odd week writing songs and therefore it’s no surprise that you lose a bit of the burn, a bit of the fire”, Jim admits.
Talking about being re-inspired are there any bands around at the moment that you’re into? “The last few years I’ve been listening again” Jim says. “Everyone bemoans the way the music industry’s gone, the record shops are gone and in a way all that’s true, but I’ve been loving the new technology. Last week I came across this girl called Janelle Monae, she’s brilliant. I like The xx, last year probably Empire of the Sun were my favourite, the year before I loved that first MGMT record, there’s always stuff that gets you going. I like a lot of pop stuff like Ladyhawke, the stuff that she’s doing”
With albums such as 1980’s ‘Empires and Dance’ and the following year’s double LP set Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, Simple Minds articulated their own take on the post-punk sound that was much in evidence in the late seventies and early eighties in the US and UK. Groups such as Public Image, Cabaret Voltaire, Talking Heads and most notably, Joy Division mixed angular guitars and intelligent, occasionally abrasive lyrics. Simple Minds, complementing this with a rhythmic base strongly redolent of German electronic pioneers Neu! and Kraftwerk, carved out their own highly idiosyncratic sound.
Were you aware of how innovative the early Simple Minds stuff was? “We were scrambling around, trying to come up with our own thing, there was tons of imagination. I think it was all a bit hit and miss!” Jim says. “On the last tour we played In Trance as Mission and Sons and Fascination, and my young nephew was out with me doing a bit of work experience, he’s twenty-one and he said to me ‘I love the new songs’, and I said ‘What?’ and he said ‘the two you’re doing near the end’, and I said ‘they’re not new songs, they’re older than you!’ he said it sounds like stuff that’s around today.”
Leading from on that, The Killers cited Simple Minds as a major influence on their most recent album. Jim elaborates, “Yeah, Brandon Flowers has just put out a solo record and he’s been mentioning us.” A band with similar stadium rattling power, Coldplay are fans also, “I met Chris from Coldplay last year, he was in Glasgow and I went along to the gig and he had a bag with six CDs in it to get signed which was charming. I think with a load of other bands, Simple Minds were probably one of the bands of the generation, it’s always a nice surprise. I can understand why each generation then goes on to inspire another.”
Going back to Simple Minds’ early years, what memories do you have of playing Liverpool? “Obviously the great early memories are of playing Eric’s, and you come out and the first person you meet in the line is [Pete] Wylie, who’s giving you stick, in a nice way!” Jim laughs. “The second album (Real to Real Cacophony) we recorded at Rockfield and we met the Bunnymen and The Teardrop, so through that we knew about the Liverpool thing. Going round in a cycle the last time we toured it was with OMD.” The Wirral natives supported the group on tour in the late 1980s, their shared love of electronic music culminating in a joint performance, “When we played the Arena last year, we brought OMD on at the end and played (Kraftwerk’s) Neon Lights.” Delving deeper into the city’s musical past, Jim continues, “Earlier than that with Deafschool, Liverpool was always a great place to play. We made a lot of friends, China Crisis toured with us for years; me and Charlie had the first Deafschool album. We really liked the singer, who went on to do The Original Mirrors. ”
In keeping with rediscovering the past, and memories of the early 1980s, the Lostboy! project stirred memories of The Associates’ lead vocalist, Billy MacKenzie. Possessed with one of the most distinctive voices in pop, MacKenzie tragically committed suicide due to depression in 1997. Jim celebrates him in the track Return of the King. “I was playing just a couple of days ago Party Fears Two (The Associates’ biggest UK hit single) and I know Alan Rankin his partner” Jim explains. “It was weird; I hadn’t thought of Billy for the longest time, it’s so sad you sort of blot it out. I was working on this piece that was a borderline Bowie parody, thinking Billy would have loved this. I remember this one incident when Billy came down to the studio and Bowie had just put out and album and Billy was a huge fan but he thought this album really sucked” Jim laughs.
“He’d had a few drinks, and he’s ranting on about how Bowie’s lost it and we’re gonna have to write him a song, and he’s sitting with notepad and pen, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna write him a great song,’ the next minute we turn round and he’s sleeping like a baby! Initially when I was working on this song it was about Bowie, but the more I worked on it, it became more about Billy.”
In view of Simple Minds’ long-standing Bowie fixation (their name is taken from a lyric in Jean Genie) is it fair to say Lostboy! is an alter ego? “Record companies said ‘Why don’t you just do it as a Jim Kerr solo album, and that didn’t do it for me. I just can’t get juiced about it, so I needed to come up with some other thing, some other concept.” He continues, “When the first few tracks started coming together, it was strange for me, ‘cos I’m not a natural one for nostalgia, I always like looking for the next idea, but there was something in the music that was taking me back to some of the period we were just talking about, post-punk ’78 to ’82, bands like Magazine, early Ultravox and that.”
“Obviously Simple Minds were starting to make sounds then, and with Lostboy! that was coming out. This music was vividly opening up these memories of myself when I was not quite a kid, but I wasn’t a man either, and through the music and the writing I was recalling how I felt, and ironically cos it’s called Lostboy! people say, ‘Why is it called that, is it ‘cos you’re lost?’ and it’s actually more about reconnecting with a thing that was left behind, not lost, but buried under a whole load of other experiences, and that’s what I call on when I do this.” Indeed, the first single off the LP evokes early Simple Minds track The American, a stinging riposte to more US air bases being built in Blighty. “Yeah, Refugee is lean and mean”, Jim says, “it reminds me a bit of Magazine, Shot By Both Sides, the drive of it is really punky, the feel of it’s very spikey.”
Jim Kerr Lostboy! AKA plays the 02 Academy 2 in Liverpool on 22nd November.
Visit www.lostboyaka.com for more details.
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