Simple Minds interview Charlie Burchil on “Direction of the Heart”

Simple Minds – Charlie Burchil on “Direction of the Heart

As one of the founding members of Scottish rock band Simple Minds way back in 1977, guitarist Charlie Burchill seems to be working as hard as ever with no sign of the band slowing down. Despite residing in Italy for years, he has not lost his thick Glaswegian accent. He will take to the stage in their latest tour with positive energy and the pure joy of playing live very evident.

“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” Simple Minds’ current lineup also features vocalist and fellow founding member Jim Kerr, alongside bassist Ged Grimes, drummer Cherisse Osei, and vocalist Sarah Brown. The band’s new album, Direction of the Heart, is out tomorrow via BMG. Most of the album’s tracks were realized in Sicily, where both Kerr and Burchill live. Unable to come to the UK because of COVID-19 quarantine rules, the album was recorded at Hamburg’s Chameleon Studios. The production team includes Andy Wright (Massive Attack, Echo & The Bunnymen) and Gavin Goldberg (Simply Red, KT Tunstall). The rest of the band recorded their parts separately in London, with Grimes writing two of the songs himself. Sparks’ frontman Russell Mael guests on the album’s “Human Traffic.”

Under the Radar spoke with Burchill about the creation of the new LP, the loss of Kerr’s father, the new dynamics within the band, and about the surprising origins of the band’s iconic song, “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” recorded for the movie The Breakfast Club.

“Vision Thing”—a great opening track. Did you come up with the riff first before the lyrics?

Charlie Burchill: It was the music first. The main part of it were the keyboard parts, which were fairly new. But there’s a rhythm vamp that goes through the verses. I had this for a few different ideas in the past and Jim [Kerr] always loved this little part. So, when I went to the verse I realized this was what I should use. That’s basically the structure of the song. We had those two parts and then we added a middle-eight later on. The core idea was the guitar line that’s in the chorus, which is also the lead vocal line.

The lyrics are based around Jim’s relationship with his late father. The fact that both of you grew up together in Toryglen [Glasgow, Scotland], does the song then have special significance for you also?

It certainly does. I was very close to Jim’s father. He was more like a friend, he would travel with us for decades, even when we weren’t touring. We walked through the desert in Jordan. We were in Indonesia, Brazil, everywhere. A very funny guy. I was lucky because just before he died over the last year, we managed to spend a lot of time with him in Scotland. I hear it in the lyrics, I hear what Jim is referring to. It’s a very happy song, it has a celebratory sound to it. That’s the way we remember him. I’m happy that Jim chose that particular piece of music to write that very personal message. It was very natural for him to write about his father like that in that context.

How did getting Sparks involved in “Human Traffic” come about?

The song itself we’ve had for quite a long time, maybe about three years. The music I had worked on years ago and always loved it. We were going to put it on the last album, but we didn’t really feel that we had recorded it properly, so we decided we were going to revisit it at some point in the future. It’s so eccentric and quirky that track. When we played on our American tour in 2019, we played in Los Angeles. Russell [Mael] came back after the show and he was fantastic. Like most bands we were big fans, even way, way back to the very early stuff. We had a great chat. As we were working on that song we realized that the closest reference we could get to would be Sparks. It’s a very unusual track. Then Jim said, “maybe he [Russell] would sing on it,” because we knew it would be great to have his vocals. We sent him the track. Not only did he agree to do it, but he did a whole elaborate job on the vocal. It was obvious he gave it a great deal of thought. It wasn’t some token thing. He had really researched it. We got it back and it just worked perfectly. That’s dynamite. As simple as that.

“First You Jump” was the second single release. What’s the theme behind that one?

Our bass player Ged Grimes played it to us a couple of years ago. Fully fledged. There are loads of different elements in it that could be described as a Simple Minds pastiche, but it had a great drive to it. Jim and I worked on it and we added some backing vocals. Ged had been working with a celtic folk singer from Scotland. We heard all that extra vocal stuff and said that’s where we should be heading. It was basically a rock track, but we wanted something more than just a rock track. We built the dynamics into it and got it to a point where we thought it was a great track to have on the album. It had this drive and tempo, but also a celtic element. It’s always been me and Jim, but it’s great to have ideas come from outside of us. It’s refreshing.

How would you best describe the new album in terms of comparisons with the various Simple Minds eras over the years?

We had 20 or more songs to pick from. Arguably, there’s some brilliant songs that aren’t on the album. We still think old-school when we put an album together. You’re trying to get a bit of light and shade, a diversity into it. We did want it to be energetic and quite optimistic. It was unspoken but I think that’s where we were heading. We wanted to have an energy to it to reflect where we are in our lives. So it’s very much its own thing. But I do hear various elements that are from very different parts of our career. We didn’t try too much to have a theme, but you always hope that a theme emerges and bonds the record.

Do you see some of the songs that didn’t make the album coming out at some point?

Yeah definitely. It’s the way we work. Certain songs find their own time to surface. We’ve had tracks that have been around since the ’90s, 30 years ago and they suddenly find their moment. We would never create a new album from the residue of the previous, but there may be a piece or two that gets grown and then when we start to work through new ideas, we realized that we have something that would work in that context.

“Who Killed Truth”—I love the energy and guitars on that one—is that one more of a political undertone?

At the moment we live in this world where it’s all spin. People no longer care about lying because they know that you know they’re lying. It’s an unprecedented situation where truth doesn’t matter any more. That song has had some evolution. It was an idea I had on the electric piano in the early ’90s during an album called Real Life. It was an early Roxy Music type song. We kept on re-visiting it and Jim really pushed that. Eventually, we were about to leave it alone again and I put a couple of guitar lines on it and Jim got very excited. Then the track moved in a completely different direction, sound-wise. It was very last minute actually. We took a flyer on it as we really liked it and it has become a bit of a favorite for people.

“Solstice Kiss” is a brilliant track. An element of celtic rhythm on the intro. What was the inspiration on that song?

Again, that’s an idea that Ged had years ago. We worked on it, but it felt very prog rock and a bit dated. We tried to work on it and we scrapped it. Then something else came up and we needed a track. We didn’t have much time so we went to that idea because the remit was something in that celtic area. We did a re-work on it. I fashioned up this celtic intro. The track still resembles a lot of the original idea that Ged had and we added in an anthemic element, so it just kept getting bigger and bigger. Songs find their moment.

You unearthed “Act of Love” recently and included it on this album. Any other un-released early Simple Minds material that you may do something similar with?

There’s loads of stuff, yeah. Not from that period perhaps. We know there’s a place in time for certain songs. We don’t consciously focus on that. When you understand the kind of record that you’re making, that’s normally when something presents itself from the past. At a certain point you start to feel a direction. Jim usually trawls through all this stuff. [Laughs]

You and Jim now mainly reside in Sicily, Italy Do you feel the music you create is shaped much by the immediate environment that you’re in? Was your music ever about being a proud Glaswegian and Scotsman?

That’s right, we both live in the same street. [Laughs] To be honest, Jim and I have never really been far away from each other. We’re in contact all the time. I used to live in Rome. We have been in love with Italy for years. Where we have been based has never really mattered or affected our writing. Quite often, people say that they get closer to a place when they leave it. As an artist, where you are from is inside you. No matter where me and Jim are, the core element is where we are from, and will always be that.

I love the drums intro on “Planet Zero.” Cherisse Osei joined the band on drums in 2016. Was it tough finding that musical connection with Cherisse after so many years playing with Mel Gaynor?

No it wasn’t at all. We had done this acoustic album and we needed a percussionist. A friend suggested Cherisse. She came down to the studio and we worked together for a week. She had such a vibe and is a great person. Then she told me that she was actually a drummer. I had a look at some of her stuff on YouTube and I couldn’t believe it. She wasn’t just a drummer, she was a dynamite drummer. I said, “Fancy playing drums?” She can integrate a lot of the electronic stuff into her set-up, and that’s really essential these days. She looks incredible, she plays incredible. She’s so organized. Suddenly in rehearsals, a lot of the stuff we could never do was becoming possible. She’s so mesmerizing the way she plays live. Mel is an incredible and phenomenal drummer. Cherisse is very different in a way. There’s other possibilities with Cherisse. How we play the song “Waterfront” live now is a great example. Even with an album like New Gold Dream, she really gets it. She loves how quirky, odd, eccentric and funky some of the drum parts from that album are.

What was your first reaction about writing a song for the movie, The Breakfast Club?

When we first heard about it, we couldn’t really relate to it because it’s about American high-school students. Detention on a Saturday and all of this type of stuff. We were given an opportunity to have a way into America, even though none of it fitted anything to do with Simple Minds. Nonetheless, we loved the guy that wrote the song [Keith Forsey]. We could hear in the demo that in some way we could make that a Simple Minds song. We could eventually put our stamp all over it, which we did. It was a bit alien to us and to be truthful we already had a lot of new tracks for the next record coming out [Once Upon a Time], like “Alive and Kicking” for example. Then suddenly we were having to do someone else’s song. Jim met John Hughes, the director, in London and he loved him. We loved Keith who wrote the song. They showed us some rough clips of the movie with the demo of the song included in a little private cinema. When the movie came out, we were very much in America doing things like Saturday Night Live and various actors would be on those shows, so we met the cast. It became pretty evident that this song was hitting a nerve, and continues to. Keith had us in mind and he was working closely with John Hughes. John was also a big fan of the band. It was a perfect fit for everyone, apart from the band, who didn’t see it like that. [Laughs] We were resistant. We are of course very happy now that we have that one under our belt.

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