We spoke with Jim Kerr about the mystery of thermostats, why success may be a subjective concept, how inventing yourself is the ultimate freedom and why spiritual texts teach us to deny rather than embrace mainstream society.
When you think of many of the legends, most of them were dropouts or didn’t do well in school. They were all sort of oddballs. And that is what made them who they were.
Part I: Success and Failure
I’ve been thinking pretty extensively about what the connection between success and failure is in business, art and life. How do you define those two concepts when you survey your life and career? I wonder if each success one has could be tied to a failing at some other point in time, but maybe it’s more nuanced than that. Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
I think as I’ve gotten older, that definitely makes sense. Likewise, so does the idea that you can learn a lot more from so-called failure than you can from success. Having said that, success is always sweeter! But some days it’s hard to really judge what success is, and how much success is contained in that “success.” The profound success versus the perceived success. It sounds ridiculous, but it could be possible to say that success is a subjective thing, though the way people quantify stuff in business usually is in who made the most money. Or in the record industry, what’s the chart position. But you know a lot of that stuff is rigged as well! So it’s hard to say. Hey, let’s go back to when we were kids, about the tortoise and the hare! That’s a great story there.
But if you were to put it to Simple Minds and really boil it down to what’s been a success — when we made our debut on January 17, 1978, we were so innocent and naive in terms of music. Everything is monetized, but nobody knew how many records Patti Smith sold or how much money she had in the bank. Nobody gave a fuck; certainly, I and my friends knew she was great. That was all that mattered.
So, if you asked us, “What do you want out of this?” we would have said to you, “We want to be a great live band. We would want to take this out in the world, playing it.” And here we are 40 years later, still dealing with that challenge. That what we wanted to do with our lives. And that’s what we’re doing. That’s a success. Everything else is kind of baubles, because that’s really what it’s all about. Everything else is a product of that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to put a roof over your head. And other people who want to be artists, whatever they do, music or drama or writing or whatever, the amount they want to do that and the amount that can put food on the table as a result of doing that is miniscule.
That alone is a success. But if you mean all the other stuff that came with it, that’s a bonus. Anyone who can put a roof over the head and pay for their kids, that’s bloody success.
Steve Jobs got fired from Apple, which is insane. And The Beatles blew their Decca audition, even though they played great if you hear the bootleg! I’m sure they both felt at their lowest at those points, but that perceived failure totally led to everything else. So it’s like, if they didn’t fail at those points, would they have ever succeeded?
This is nothing on that scale, but within our own little story, Simple Minds did three albums for a label called Arista back in the day. They signed up with great enthusiasm. Three albums later, we still weren’t making any money. They were about a hundred grand in the hole, maybe more, which in 1979 was probably like a quarter million. They were about to dump us when Richard Branson came along and offered them 35 grand to take the debt. So, we were kinda dumped, but had a new lease on life and people who had new energy. Whereas Arista were saying, “You’re not doing the right thing!”, Virgin were saying to us, “You are doing the right thing. It’s just a matter of time until the rest of the world catches up. So keep doing it.”
Do you think Western society kind of drills into our heads that you have to reach that arbitrary, quantized goal, rather than reaching new creative peaks? I don’t know how many copies of Horses Patti Smith sold back in the day, but I imagine people would read that hard data and call it a disaster. Same with Pet Sounds. I guess that’s obviously the old conflict between critical and commercial success.
I probably sold ten times the amount of records than Lou Reed, but I’m not fit to lace Lou Reed’s boots. That’s the truth, and we all know it.
Do you think the key to success is just blasting past those moments where you feel less-than and laughing in the face of insecurity?
It’s a tough one. When I was in school, there was a test you took in Scotland by the age of 11. And they divided you up. If you did pass this test, you went to a school where you could be an accountant or have a white collar job, maybe a lawyer or a doctor. They were deciding who were the wheat from the chaff. I mean, that’s absolutely brutal. The irony is, when you think of many of the legends, most of them were dropouts or didn’t do well in school. Some of them were dyslexic. They were all sort of oddballs. And that oddball-ness, that failing, that made them who they were!
In those tests, we were judged as if we were all the same. And we’re anything but the same. Some are born entrepreneurs. Some are born risk-takers. Some have incredible imagination. Others just have a good IQ.
Reminds me of Bob Dylan. If you see him live, he’s probably playing lead guitar in the wrong key and changing his classic songs every night, unpredictably. Someone I know described him as an “idiot savant.” But it’s almost like the defect that should take you out of the capitalistic race actually puts you at the front of the competition. I mean, it’s Dylan!
That’s just the greatest thing in rock & roll, compared to the classical world! I remember I was having a late lunch with a woman who, from her childhood years to the age of 25, had been in the classical world and then gave it up because she knew she could never be great. She could be good, but she could never be great. She was crippled by guilt because her parents had spent money, and she had to make it. Bless her, you know. She gave it her best shot. Living with that pressure as a kid, growing up with that on your shoulders and knowing about the money that was invested, I mean, that’s crippling someone.
Rock and roll, you sing out of tune, and fuckin’ people love you! That’s called attitude. Marlon Brando comes around and breaks every rule in the world as he mumbles. People go, “I wanna do that!” That’s what’s so liberating about rock & roll. People said Picasso couldn’t draw. But he did something that made people actually want it.
People say age doesn’t matter. It does matter. You have to start editing with your time. You have to become a better editor. And you have only so much time to be thinking about stuff.
Then, I was talking to another friend about the Stones. And a thought came up that gave me chills about that band. Picture Mick Jagger as a teenager, looking in his bedroom mirror, flapping his hands and making faces and singing in this twangy, cartoonish voice. Flash forward 50 years later, and he’s still doing that weird thing he perfected as a kid. And it’s not just a band. It’s a multimedia empire.
You would want your money back if he didn’t flap his hands and do all that. The great thing about rock & roll history is that’s it’s the hustle. The hustle to invent yourself. Before we wrote songs, we never met anyone who wrote a song. I’m so proud that, in the last 40 years, so much music has come out of Scotland and Glasgow, but when we started, it was a fucking desert. And the reason it was a desert was geographical to begin with, because back then, the industry still wasn’t decentralized. Everyone had to go to London, so anyone who had some chutzpah went there.
It was tough to go to London or go to New York or to go to L.A., trying to hustle and it’s expensive and you’re living in squats or bedsits, and eventually you give up. Because it’s too much. But in a place like Glasgow, anyone who anyone left. So there was nothing happening, and we didn’t know anyone. There was no mentor. There was no music school or college. You couldn’t go along to your friend and ask his uncle who played the guitar and he’d show you how to write the bridge of a song. You had more chance of being an astronaut than being a rock & roll star in Glasgow.
And yet, we somehow had this thing come out of Charlie Burchill’s amplifier and thought, “We’re going to be astronauts. That’s our rocket right there.”
Part II: Mystery and Insight
Do you think the interconnectedness of our modern world has led to a deeper understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes, or has there just been a “reality show” veneer built to meet it? When I get an alert on my phone about the latest Trump scandal, it seems more like the illusion of getting the inside scoop. It’s really the next episode of a soap opera written for the public. Sometimes I feel like a student who desperately wants to break into the office and read all the permanent records, as it were.
That’s a brilliant question. And it’s a question I do ask myself. I’m not sure I have the answer. For the longest time, I was a news junkie. You get to know every detail and know the personalities, looking for all the clues, and you get a real-time soap opera playing out and it’s addictive. And it’s scary, because it’s real! Decisions get made that affect the world. But I also realized that — and I don’t mean to sound pretentious here — the great thing about having an art is that you can transcend all that stuff.
Because, what can I tell you about Donald Trump that you don’t know already? And if you want to get even more existential about it, it’s a blip in time. I’m saying that now because I’m coming to 60. People say age doesn’t matter. It does matter. You have to start editing with your time. You have to become a better editor. And you have only so much time to be thinking about stuff. Decisions that are being made just now? Of course they’re going to affect the generations to come. That’s that generation’s karma to deal with. There’s nothing I can do about it.
You prefer to take the artistic route through it?
Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s escapist, but escapist in a more profound way. That’s why I love music. Because when I put the needle on and I write about it — there’s a song called “Utopia” on the new album, and the utopia I’m talking about was falling in love with music when I was a teen, and it transporting me to another place. Glasgow was on its knees at that time. The Industrial Age had come and gone. All the industries were closing, unemployment, it was just bleak, bleak, bleak.
And rock & roll took us to a place. Color came through the music. There was a sense of something else out there. A sense that the world could begin at the end of your street, as opposed to ending at the end of your street. It liberated us from the gravity! And I think I’m back at that level of understanding again.
This wasn’t music of my parents. This was poetic, romantic, twisted, nightmarish, sexy, and that’s really when I knew there were different kinds of musical language.
I’m a songwriter, too, and I was having a debate with someone the other day as to whether lyrics should be immediately graspable to a listener or if the inside jokes and personalized, cryptic stuff should be what makes art resonate. I love early R.E.M. lyrics because they’re completely impenetrable. I don’t know what anything’s even based on. On the other hand, I respect writers like Dan Wilson who paint a crystal-clear, emotionally resonant picture with music. Do you prefer one method or the other?
It really depends. I think there’s times when you want to be specific and for the narrative to be right there, but you never want it to be boring or run-of-the-mill. You’re forced, then, to try to come up with it from your own mind. That’s what the art rock bands did. It was about the vibe, then you find the language to go with the vibe. When David Bowie and Marc Bolan came along, they had their own language. It was fragmented. It was mosaic. It didn’t tell you the story, but it resonated the most wondrous things. And then it was up to you, in your imagination. You were either hip to it or you weren’t.
Yeah, I like the ones like that. Because it felt as though my parents wouldn’t know what this was about, so this was cool. Jim Morrison, too. What’s a “rider on the storm”? You don’t have to know what it is. But you feel it. The pictures and the atmosphere that goes with it is so rich. When we grew up, the kind of music in my house was the Beatles or the Stones and they would play and dance, then Saturday night it’d be folk songs. Actually, more like country & western. People in Scotland loved the Patsy Clines and the Jim Reeves and the Charlie Prides. Those guys could sympathize with the heartbroken cowboy.
But I remember my dad getting his first car. Maybe it was his second car, but his first with a radio. It was an amazing coincidence. It was a Friday summer’s night in June, and I was about eight. My dad took myself and my brothers for a ride. Back then, nobody cared if you were drinking and driving in Scotland, really. He parked the car and said, “I’m going to go in for a few pints. Sit in the car with some crisps and some comics.” We asked to leave the radio on. That was a big deal.
I’ll never forget that this track came on. It had the intro, and the piano, and the lightning break, and this voice saying, “There’s a killer on the road.” We were terrified! And there was lightning somewhere off the distance!
Point is, I was listening to it, the voice, the words and the sound, and I’d never heard anything like it. This wasn’t music of my parents. This was poetic, romantic, twisted, nightmarish, sexy, and that’s really when I knew there were different kinds of musical language.
Well, let’s cut to the chase. “Wop bop a loo-wah a-wop bam bam.” That set the scene for everything. And yet, what the hell is that? There was a primal code. I don’t know what it means, but I know what it means. It’s perfect. It’s gibberish, but it’s their gibberish.
The early backlash against rock & roll by evangelical groups had some obvious racist undertones, I think, but I think another part of why it got flak was that it took you out of the linear, “Go to work!” mindset. This incoherent screaming would make you question the act of just getting in line. I guess they actually banned Link Wray’s “Rumble,” which is insane because it has no lyrics. They thought the guitar sound would incite street violence in youth.
I love thinking about all this, because I was listening to an interview with Little Richard. He was talking about where he got the look. People talk about the Ziggy Stardust look and Bowie was a huge fan of Little Richard, as we know, but people had never seen anything like Little Richard. He must have gotten the look from somewhere. He said it came from these freak shows that came from out of town. If Little Richard was looking at the freaks, imagine what the freaks looked like! That’s where I wanna be! It must have been unbelievable!
I think there are forces in this world that would like to make your thinking as linear as possible. It’s instilling that “point A to point B” mindset, especially here in New York. And to go back to the Stones for a second, they were almost prophetic on that topic. “They’re telling me more and more about some useless information.” That obviously was written in the era of ad-men and color TVs, but I think that song’s about now! Trying to get out of that stream of messages.
That’s interesting. I never thought about the song knowing that context, which was iconic to a world then. But there are probably quite a lot of songs that came out in the context of those ‘60s things that, more than anything, were sort of resonant again. At one point, they may have felt as if they overstayed their welcome.
But if we go back through history, to some of those great Roman senators, you’ll find all the Donald Trump stuff there. I love the writings and philosophies of Seneca of the so-called stoics. They took the position of “It’s all bullshit anyway, so don’t worry about it, because it’s gonna pass.” Never mind “Satisfaction”! Go back to the Romans! It’ll put a little spring in your step tomorrow if it wasn’t there today. You’ll love it! Go on iTunes and download the collected stories of Seneca. It’s his letters to a younger guy, and he says: “Listen. This is what counts. This doesn’t count. This is what’s gonna happen anyway. Seen it before. It’s gonna pass. It’ll be a bummer, but it’s gonna be alright.”
And the messages of the world want us to be right in that moment, of hanging on everything the president says or does. Maybe it’s that rock & roll sense of freedom in saying that. It’ll be over in a few years. It’s nothing in the grand scale of time.
Having said that, it is kind of captivating! I’ve only been in the city a few days, and the CNN woman — I don’t know her name, she’s on about 7:00 your time, which is past my bedtime back home and I never see her — who’s the guy who’s lost his mind?
Yeah, you’ve got it. I’m watching that, and I’m thinking, “Is this a fuckin’ movie or what?” You know that thing where they say this has made it harder for comedians and satirists, because the real stuff’s so hysterical that you can’t live up to it?
Trump humor doesn’t work for me because it’s low-hanging fruit. He was a reality show host, and I think this is all programmed behind the scenes to be obnoxious, galling and funny to the public. Making fun of it just makes it into a “hall of mirrors” thing.
Whatever it is, it’s on a level I haven’t seen before.
Ten years ago, or leading up to the whole crash on Wall Street, we knew about the young guns, the young bucks who were in there, and they had the balls and they took all the risks and that was part of the deal. But I naively thought, “Oh, no. There’ll be a ring of older guys there who, at the right moment, will pat them on the shoulder and say “Come on guys. Sober up. Enough’s enough.” But there was no ring of elder guys. There were no old mentors. The whole metrics of it had changed anyway. Technology was moving at a pace where no one understood how it worked, and as long as it was working, no one was gonna say “Enough’s enough.” That’s not part of the system. If you said that, the shareholders would hold you out as having lost your cajones. You say, “We’re not going to run this thing to the cliff’s edge, are we?”
I remember — and this is just a version of that, since compared to the States it’s such a small-time, parochial version — but the Royal Bank of Scotland was this little farmer’s bank. They were good and would never abuse your money. They would never do anything. Then they grew up and bought everything up. They became one of the biggest banks in the world. I’m also one of their clients, and I remember a couple of years before it went tits-up where I was sitting, reading the newspaper, and they were talking about the shareholders’ meeting in Edinburgh.
Now, Edinburgh is a Presbyterian, kind of sensible place, but the shareholder boss came in at the meeting and played the soundtrack of Rocky. And I thought: not in Edinburgh. Not in Edinburgh! They must be out of their minds as well!
And they were out of their minds. A year later, the whole thing was down the tube and everyone’s money was lost. What happened was that they bought everything up until there was nothing else left to buy. And then they thought: we’ve got to buy something, or else the shares will go down. So, they bought the last thing they could buy and didn’t do the due diligence on it, so it was garbage that they bought. And it sent them tits-up. Essentially, they went to the casino table one time too many.
These were the educated guys who’d say, “We’re not Americans. We’re not cowboys. We do it right,” and all that. Yeah, they are cowboys.
Look, you’re right, but everyone who cocks a snook to that, they all want to be it! Even the Germans want to be it. You think: oh, the Germans will be stoics. They’ll be intelligent about it. They’re not! Because at the end of the day, we’re all little boys, and my dick needs to be bigger than yours. How much money do you fuckin’ need? So it can’t be about the money.
People say capitalism will go, and I agree it will. They go, “There you go, there’s capitalism for you!” On the other hand, I still don’t know any other system that’s better than it. I’m from two generations of poverty! So if you can hustle and you can get on and make a buck, then great, and if you’re not killing anyone doing it, even better. But we go, “Oh, unbridled capitalism! That’s where it goes wrong!” But by its very nature, it can’t be bridled. It’s got to be boom and bust. People take it to the end. That’s just the way it goes.
The real scary thing that gets me is, when you look at all the rises and falls, the great periods of productivity are always after wars. Is that what we need to be getting on? Whether that’s Japan, Germany, or other countries? Of course, you didn’t have World War II fought on your shores here in the United States, though certainly it was involved, but the product it built the world then went into this boom for decades afterward. You think, “God, is that what it needs?” Because if that’s what it needs, then we shouldn’t be surprised when stuff goes all to hell.
In the grand scheme of things, wouldn’t that sort of make the United States an experiment in indulging all our basest instincts without consequences?
There is an element of that. That’s also the whole ecological thing, isn’t it? Thing is, you believe in it or you don’t. And if you do, what are you going to do about it? I’m not going to be here anyway! But if you’ve got kids or grandkids and you’ve got any empathy, then what?
It’s funny — I don’t know if you use the word “empathy” much in America. We don’t in the UK. People say, “I sympathize,” or “I feel.” Occasionally, they say “empathy,” but it’s a very different thing from sympathy. The idea of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes or trying to imagine how that’s going to feel, you know, if you’re always taking advantage, of whoever gets left behind.
Part III: Winners and Losers
Here are two concepts that are back on the tip of our tongue in a big way since the election. We’re going to start “winning again,” and anyone opposed is a “loser.”
Going back to your opening questions about winners and losers, everything’s judged by that. That’s just too much. I’ve felt both sides.
Last week, at the drop of a hat, and it wasn’t any big deal, but my friend was in trouble. Things just hadn’t been panning out for a long time, and it got to a level where things were a real mess. I was able to help him stabilize his situation. Of course, I didn’t hesitate. And it really hurt me thinking about it, because the thing he kept saying was “I’m a loser.” And it’s just killing me. He’s not a loser. Certainly, things haven’t panned out the way he wanted, or the idea was right and the timing was wrong. But at the age of 60 — or any age — it was ripping me up. It can’t all be about winners and losers. It’s got to be about something more than that.
It’s terrible to feel that way about yourself at every age. But I’d think that would smart in a different way when you’re 60 versus 16.
There you go. That’s the thing. I felt for him on every level, but encapsulating it into “winners and losers” was just, like, “Come on, man. Give yourself a break.”
But I’ve been in places where people are way out of my league, and I still feel the misery around them. They’re pissed off because the guy along the road’s got more. It’s never enough.
I think often about the elderly or people who suffered some loss and infirmity early on that affects them for the rest of their lives. Or someone who committed a crime early on and never recovered from the consequences. Those people are usually left in the rear-view mirror of that runaway capitalistic train. There’s an emotional and spiritual toll on top of the physical toll.
What you say is really right. No matter how simple it is, one has to have some kind of philosophy. You’ve got to get a view on it, and you have to see what’s important to you.
I love reading the Eastern stuff, the Tao and all that. I don’t practice it, but I love reading the Japanese philosophies by the ancient ones and all that. They all say, “Look! It’s all bullshit. Work hard. Look after your family. Be there for your friends. Don’t piss anyone off. Get educated.” And that’s about it! To enjoy life. That really is about it. I can see this from a point of privilege inasmuch that I’ve ended up a situation… look, I’m not some billionaire or something. Nothing like that. But I’m way beyond my wildest dreams. That’s just the way it works out.
But I’ve been in places where people are way out of my league, and I still feel the misery around them. They’re pissed off because the guy along the road’s got more. It’s never enough. Maybe their kids are miserable, or they’ve got a private plane and they’ve got nowhere to go because none of that stuff works unless all the other stuff is working.
So, I love reading about the Tao, too, and I think it’s got a couple parallels with Christianity. At its core, I think the Bible is a denial of mainstream society. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s got everything, but he’s telling you it’s all vanity. How do you explain that to billionaires and megachurch pastors? Later, Christ says, “Broad is the road leading off into destruction.” These aren’t accounts that tell you our world is something you should hang your hat on.
It’s true. Certainly from my experience, there is a code of sensibilities in those books that gives you sense as much as it is mystical. It’s a code of living. If you can eke them out and use them as a handrail as we go through the dizzying world that’s careening into who-knows-where, I take great comfort in them.
They’re both talking about the world like it’s the Titanic. And they were written thousands of years ago.
It boils it down to ignorance and enlightenment! You’re either switched on or not. There was a stage in my life where we were like kids given the keys to a sweetshop, being in a rock and roll band. You would be mad not to indulge! But there’s a point of enlightenment. You go, “That looks like fun, but it’s going to be trouble in the long run. It doesn’t suit me anymore.” In my case, that’s when kids came along. I was responsible for something more than my own goofiness. That was just instinct: are you stupid or not? Are you going to do the right thing?
I kind of grew up overnight, in the sense that until then, I would have paid you to let me be in a band. People have written me saying that I changed and such, and I did! I had to. Because that stuff was there and my parents were getting older and all that stuff. It was like, okay, the weekend’s over and it’s Monday morning. We’ve got to get on with this.
You’d laugh at me. We had been out for about two months — and this is not that long ago! — and it’s been five-star hotels and “You want lobster bisque?” and whatever. And it was time to go home. You know, the funny thing about Scotland is that we only have one billionaire. And he’s not an asshole. It’s amazing! What I mean is, people have money, but it’s not in your face. It’s not everywhere. It’s really not “My dick is bigger than your dick.” It’s not oppressive. The street I live on in Glasgow is a nice street, but my neighbor is a doctor is the other neighbor’s a lawyer. There’s no MAGA thing going on.
So, I’ve been on the road for two months and it’s all rock & roll and every whim is taken care of, then I come home. My partner’s Japanese and she was back home seeing her family. I get there near midnight on a Sunday. It’s freezing. And the boiler is broken. I can’t get the heating on! There’s nothing in the fridge! I’m like “Aaah, what the fuck!” I don’t know what to do! I have to call her in Japan and get her to get it fixed from there. And she said to me, “Why don’t you go into a hotel?” and I’m like, “I’m not paying that money to be in a hotel! I’m a cheapskate!” It was just nuts.
There’s that part of my life. The night before, I’m playing at Wembley Arena, and now I’m like, “I don’t know what a thermostat is!”
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: March 19, 2018
Total questions: 23
Word count: 5306
Reading time: Twenty minutes
accountant, Apple, arbitrary, astronaut, baubles, Benmont Tench, Bob Dylan, capitalism, chaff, Charlie Burchill, childhood, chutzpah, comics, consequence, cowboy, crisps, Dan Wilson, David Bowie, Decca, diligence, dyslexia, Edinburgh, editor, escapism, farmer, Germany, Glasgow, hare, Ian anderson, information, Japan, Jim Kerr, Jim Morrison, Jim Reeves, John Lennon, league, legend, Link Wray, Little Richard, Lou Reed, megachurch, messages, monetization, oddball, Patsy Cline, Presbytarian, quantization, R.E.M., restraint, Richard Branson, rocket, Rocky, Rome, Scotland, Simple Minds, songwriting, Steve Jobs, stoicism, Tao Te Ching, technology, thermostat, Titanic, tortoise, train, United States, utopia, wheat, World War II, Ziggy Stardust
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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