“We just wanted to make the most glorious sounding thing we could.”
Guitarist/keyboard programmer Charlie Burchill has perfectly described the vibe of Simple Minds’ first studio album in more than five years, the spot-on titled Big Music. These pioneers of late-’70s synthtronica from Glasgow, Scotland crossed over, well, big in the ’80s, transforming into a veritable MTV-age indie-rock juggernaut. They transitioned from the dance-if-you-want-to kick of Promised You a Miracle and the ever-ubiquitous Don’t You (Forget About Me) to the Celtic protest of Belfast Child and abject triumph of Mandela Day. For Big Music, the band was quite intent on blending the best of both worlds. As lead singer Jim Kerr puts it, “It’s gotta feel like old Simple Minds, but it’s also gotta feel like new Simple Minds. Talking about it is one thing, doing it is another thing. It’s still a mysterious thing, making music.”
Kerr need not worry too much about the results, as Big Music offers the right blend of the classic and the now, from the pulsing club touches of Honest Town to the keyboard-driven Blood Diamonds to the anthemic thump of Human.
“It’s gotta feel like old Simple Minds, but it’s also gotta feel like new Simple Minds.”
Digital Trends rang across the Pond to engage these two lively, native Scotsmen, both 55, and get their respective takes on the depth they insist on in their recordings, why surround mixes need every channel to be effective, and the secrets of the special “breath” chemistry that makes certain tracks even more magical. Alive and kicking, without question.
Digital Trends: It’s interesting how you characterize Big Music as a mixture of old and new, as in, “Let’s set the table to let people know this is us, and then we’ll move it into the new direction.”
Jim Kerr: Yeah. We’ve always said we were going back to our roots — but that was then and this is now, and you can’t go back. Technology’s changed, you’ve changed, and styles and trends have come and gone. Music is an organic thing. It’s always progressing.
When you’re working on a bunch of songs, you’re looking for the strongest melodies, and you’re looking for stuff that you think, especially now, has instant impact, because it’s hard enough getting people’s attention in 20 seconds or less. It’s gotta come across with a real commitment. It’s gotta sound great, and feel great. We had a lot of boxes that we wanted to tick — that we needed to tick — as we were working on it.
Charlie Burchill: You do check off the boxes of a few things you’ve always wanted to try. The general thing people are saying about the record is that it goes back to an earlier period of the band’s history, but it has a very contemporary sound to it.
Kerr: What happened was, five years ago, we did a tour called “5 From 5” — five songs [each] from the first five albums, the “art rock” ones before we got our commercial break. Prior to that, I thought, metaphorically, maybe it would be like going into a jacket that’s not going to fit you anymore, and doesn’t suit you anymore. But we were amazed how the songs didn’t need to be dusted down. We were amazed how contemporary a lot of them sounded. I guess that’s because a lot of newer bands have been looking to that period of music, and in a way, some of them have contemporized what bands like us were doing way back when.
We really loved it. Not only did the people coming to see it enjoyed it, but even though they say you can’t go back, we were able to actually capture the essence. And some of that is what is going on in the background of Big Music.
What did you discover about the record sonically during the initial playback?
Burchill: That’s a really great question. We had mastered some of the tracks on the album two or three times. At one point, when we finished the album, we had the vinyl of it, the 12-inch, on a little record player in the background, very quiet. And everyone there in the studio noticed that it sounded much, much better. Certain things bled together, like old analog tape used to do. I definitely heard it.
Kerr: I was in the studio the day the vinyl turned up. And Andy Wright, the co-producer, said, “Come and listen!” and I said, “I can’t listen to this record anymore!” But when I went into the room, they had it at a nice volume — not too loud, and you could hear everything. And it sounded so good.
“We got a kid to master the record for us, and that really made a difference.”
Burchill: Recently, I was playing an MP3 in iTunes, and I also had the same original file sitting on my desktop. When I played it from the desktop, it sounded so much better than it did in iTunes.
Naturally. What do you feel is missing from MP3s?
Burchill: The thing I always notice that’s missing is the depth. There’s something you feel more than actually hear sometimes. But especially when you’re mixing, you start to realize you need the full three-dimensional space, which all flattens out on an MP3. Things that normally would be quiet but you’d still hear them — they get lost. The subtleties are gone. We’ve forgotten what it’s supposed to sound like when you’d be able to hear the little cowbell in the corner, you know?
I do. In an MP3, the dynamic range has been lost, and a song is often too compressed. On tracks like Human and Honest Town, there’s a lot of detail you’ll miss if you don’t listen to them in a higher-res format.
Burchill: Absolutely! For the last few albums, we’ve recorded things onto analog tape, and transferred them. Recently, I was listening to a multitrack, thinking, “There’s so much headroom, there’s so much depth.” This thing with digital — the wave stops at a certain point, whereas analog just goes on. Even people who don’t realize it feel it.
What tracks on Big Music have the most dynamic range?
Burchill: I think Human would be one of those. Like you say, it’s quite dense, with a lot of stuff. You have to hear the intricacies of that one the right way.
And there’s the track at the end called Spirited Away — it’s got loads of texture and things going on. If you hear it on a great pair of monitors, you can hear the depth. That will be something great in high-res.
Kerr: When we finally got the very first track, Blindfolded, together, we felt there was a great balance, especially with Charlie’s guitars. Charlie’s guitars are a huge part of Simple Minds. He was playing these beautiful melodies, and there was a great balance between the synths, the guitars, and the drums. Kind of obscure lyrics, but they were still hitting home. We thought, “This is a good one to set the scene with.” We got a lot of confidence from that.
It’s a big, anthemic song. I also like that, in the intro, we get that killer distorted percussion. How did you get that sound?
Kerr: It’s a great one! It was Andy Wright, who produced it. He said, “I’ve got this thing that I’ve had the mind to use it for a very long time.” He put that “boom “boom boom” feel there — that kind of synth drums — and everyone went, “Yeah, we love that!” We haven’t heard that sound for a long time. It’s something not a lot of people have picked up on like you did. (laughs)
What was your overall goal for the Big Music mix?
Kerr: We’d been working on various versions of these songs on and off for four years — different places, different versions, different producers, different engineers. And then finally we had to pull it together and make it sound like it was all coherent. There had to be an overall “sound” to it, an overall sheen, and certainly the engineer/co-producer Gavin Goldberg did a great job of making sure the sound had a totality to it. That was a huge thing. One of the things more than ever this time that really got to me is that we got a kid to master the record for us [JP Chalbos, at La Source Mastering, Paris], and that really made a difference.
“That was then and this is now, and you can’t go back.”
Charlie’s the echo king, and we really get to hear his prowess on songs like your heartfelt cover of The Call’s Let the Day Begin. He’s an underrated player, don’t you think?
Kerr: Yeah, it’s great that you say that! It’s all that modesty. He’s never wanted to be the guitar hero. I’m obviously biased, because he’s wonderful.
I think people think a lot of his sounds are synths. They don’t know it’s Charlie who played that. He’s a real “collage” type of guitar player, you know? He sits and he works out all his sounds, and he patches it all together. And he never plays the same thing twice, which can be infuriating. (chuckles) But it’s nice to hear you think he merits more attention.
I’m glad we can tell the band was in the room recording together and we can also hear the separation of instruments when listening to Big Music via high-res files.
Burchill: That’s great. You just said the two most important things. When you used to listen to really good-quality analog recordings, you almost felt like you were in the room with the band, and we just don’t get that with MP3. We were in the studio recently playing as a band, and there were a few other studios in the same place. Some other bands who were there came in and saw us said, “Wow! They’re actually playing in the studio!” To them, it was a novelty! It’s crazy! (both laugh)
Obviously when you play them live or are in the room together, you learn so much about the tracks. We would change things because we’d realize what was wrong. For example, sometimes, you can’t hear the breath before a line is sung. I’ll say that to Jim when we’re mixing — sometimes other things are so loud, and to hear the expression in the voice, you’ve got to hear that breath too. It’s all about the magic, and that’s the stuff. That’s invaluable. That’s what makes music — the chemistry, and the emotional experience when people listen to it.
What would cite as an example of other full-range songs, from your own catalog?
Burchill: One of them would be Waterfront [from 1984’s Sparkle in the Rain, produced by Steve Lillywhite] and another would be Once Upon a Time (1985), on the album we did with Bob Clearmountain. I heard the masters recently — Bob would be working with people who weren’t using as much echo as we were (chuckles), that our keyboard player [Michael MacNeil] was. But on Once Upon a Time, you can hear that on loads of tracks. You can hear the delays clear, coming through — sometimes even four or five times, and that’s because Bob can mix.
Sanctify Yourself is certainly a good example of that.
Burchill: Yeah! Clearmountain also tracked that record. Right from the ground up, the sounds were quality, and he knew how to do it in the mix. And then Bob Ludwig mastered it.
Kerr: When you talk about sound, one of the things we’ve been really fortunate about was, in that generation, we worked with some of the best engineers and producers, from Bob Clearmountain to Trevor Horn and Stephen Lipson [Street Fighting Years, 1989], [Jimmy] Iovine [Once Upon a Time, 1985, with Clearmountain], and Steve Lillywhite [Sparkle in the Rain, 1984] — I mean, they don’t come much better than that for that period in time.
Quite true. In 2005, surround mixes of Once Upon a Time and 1982’s New Gold Dream were released. What’s your opinion of surround sound as a format?
“Music is an organic thing. It’s always progressing.”
Burchill: I really like it, personally. A few of our albums were available on SACD, too. I went in the studio with the guy [Roland Prent], and we did the 5.1 mixes. We did regular 2.0 versions too. We mastered them up in Portland, Maine, with Bob Ludwig.
I wish there was some way to deliver it to more people. The problem over here in the U.K. is when people set up a system in their room, usually they have a couch backed up against a wall, so the 5.1 comes across as more 3.1.
Wow. That’s not going to cut it. You really need to be in the middle of those mixes.
Burchill: Yeah. And everybody has a different approach to surround when they mix. Some people like to put things hard left or hard right in the stereo space. I kind of like it when there’s a bit of everything in every speaker, because then you really feel like you’re in the three-dimensional space and having something like a movie coming flying out.
Interestingly enough, whenever Bob does the mix, at the end of it, he asks you if you want to hear the 5.1, because he does them simultaneously! It just sounds right, you know? “Oh, that’s the way 5.1 is supposed to be used.”
I’m going to vote for a surround-sound release of Big Music. It would be so great to literally sit down in the middle of Honest Town. But then we’d have to call that version Bigger Music.
Burchill: (laughs) Yeah, definitely! That would be great! Tracks like that one have a big ambience, and you’d hear a little more definition in the bottom end. Sometimes we had two or three different bass tracks, and in 5.1 we could find the space for those, rather than them just “sitting” on top of each other.
Did you ever think your music would have such continued resonance?
Kerr: No. You’re in so deep, and you’re just thinking, “I hope someone gets this. I hope they get it, because we love it!” It sounds like we’re blowing our own horn, but we really do love it.
It’s a mysterious thing, music. You’re just never sure. You “get” it, but does anyone else even get a chance to know it exists? And if they do, are they gonna feel about it like you feel? When they do, it feels great. Honestly, that’s not in an “ego” way — that comes later (laughs) — but more in a sort of a validation way: “Hey, I’m not mad! I’m not alone.”