Q&A With Del Amitri’s Justin Currie

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There will always be a small bunch who will never forgive Justin Currie for the sins of his former band, Del Amitri. Namely, the speed and vigor with which the group abandoned the angular new-wave-ish promise of its 1985 self-titled debut for more conventional pop inroads. Currie makes no apologies for the 17 years and five albums of smart, well-executed, comparatively middle-of-the-road Brit Invasion melodies and country-rock yearnings that followed. It even netted him and his Scottish bandmates an American hit, “Roll To Me,” in 1995. Nowadays, Currie is still living in Glasgow while nurturing an intermittent solo career that now includes The Great War (Ryko). Coming eight years after Del Amitri’s last album, it resurrects the reassuring jangle of that band as it continues Currie’s middle-age explorations of the darker recesses of the male love muscle (i.e. the heart). Currie will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

“A Man With Nothing To Do” (download):

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MAGNET: Del Amitri never officially broke up, correct? What is your current relationship with the other members, in particular co-founder Iain Harvie?
Currie: No, we didn’t ever “break up.” We just stopped doing Del Amitri things. Iain and I still write every couple of years and will have an album finished by the end of this year, hopefully. He lives in Oxford, England, and I live in Glasgow, so we only see each other once a year or so, but we’re brothers and we love each other. I see (keyboardist) Andy Alston a bit more. He lives close by, and we do some hill walking together. The three of us were the only permanent fixtures in the group between the mid-’80s and the early zeros.

I was struck by the transformation of the group in the four years between Del Amitri and Waking Hours. Was that more—dare say—mainstream sound what you were after from the beginning?
We always said that our “transformation” from indie art pop to mainstream pop/rock was a natural thing. None of us ever suddenly stood up in a rehearsal and said, “Do you know what? Fuck this post-punk indie shit—let’s rock.” Iain and I started writing separately instead of with the rest of the band, and our stuff sounded much more accessible and probably Americanized. Iain’s guitar playing loosened up, started embracing blues and rock. We were also getting into the new country stuff at that time: Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett. And we then brought in a famous Glasgow guitarist called Mick Slaven, who plays like Robert Quine meets Nile Rogers meets Marc Bolan meets Jimi Hendrix. That we should sound a little different from before was inevitable.

I recall being shocked when I interviewed Iain after Waking Hours and couldn’t make out a word he was saying through that thick Glaswegian brogue. How did a bunch of guys from Scotland sound so Americanized? To what extent were you modeling yourself after the music of the U.S. bands you grew up with?
We were massively influenced by our trip to the U.S. in 1986, when we were on our last legs financially. We started to realize that the whole alternative credibility thing was a trap that the songs we’d started writing needed to break free from. Just being in the U.S. for a couple of months and absorbing classic-rock radio and meeting college radio people really shook us out of our ghetto-ized attitude to music. We started listening to Creedence, John Mellencamp’s The Lonesome Jubilee, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. Before that, it had all been the Fall, the Smiths, R.E.M., the Feelies.

Do you feel that Del Amitri could’ve made more of an impact in America? Did you feel misunderstood here?
Quite the opposite. We were always staggered that anyone there dug us at all. If a band feels misunderstood, they are in the wrong business. What is this? Avant-garde theater? Just be grateful even one member of the audience applauds.

To me, Del Amitri was defined by a decided lack of trendiness in a sea of trends. I listen to my favorite albums now—Waking Hours and 1997’s Some Other Sucker’s Parade, in particular—and it’s surprising how timeless they sound.
We generally hated what was going on around us. You have to remember that, after the incredibly rich “Cambrian explosion” of 1976 to 1981, music in the ‘80s was fucking awful. Genuinely interesting things were so rare. Thatcherism ushered in a long period in which style was hugely more important than content. Groups like the Smiths and R.E.M. really had no peers. You had to go and do it yourself. So in Glasgow, we certainly felt like no one else was on our planet. It should probably be admitted that we were pretty ambitious. We wanted to be the best, not the most goddamn cool.

As Del Amitri often did, you take your time between albums. What’s the creative process like for you? Is it arduous? Is it safe to assume you’re a perfectionist?
Del Amitri took all that time for various logistical reasons—no deal, years of touring one album, not being allowed into the studio by the company, stupid delays of release dates by years in some cases. Me? I just sit and wait for the next collection of songs to accumulate before I go and make a record. If they don’t come, I wait some more.

What are your other interests?
I’m no great fan of staying busy for its own sake. My job is to sit tight and wait for an idea—in an empty house with a loaded gun.

The Great War is a bit of a mixed bag. In some spots, it sounds a lot like Del Amitri (“A Man With Nothing To Do,” “At Home Inside Of Me,” “Ready To Be”). In others, there’s a near-theatrical quality that emerges (“The Fight To Be Human”). And there are also moments that are pretty dark. Where were you emotionally while writing these songs? What was going on in your life at the time?
I don’t think my life is relevant to listeners. Would it make a difference if I’d survived a 300-foot fall from a rocky ledge, had TB, watched all my friends die in a burning tent? Songs are independent entities that live inside you and eventually demand to be delivered into the physical world. I could spend a year on a beach drinking cocktails and having my feet massaged by a Greek goddess, but if the song says, “Life is a bucket of shit,” then that’s what I’m going to write.

You’re just hitting the road. What can fans expect from your solo acoustic sets?
If they expect the worst, they can’t fail to be moderately surprised.

Exactly who are Justin Currie fans these days?
A 15-year-old blind boy and a very old woman in an inappropriate hat.

—Hobart Rowland

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3 Comments

  1. S.G. Gardner
    Posted June 5, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    It’s always interesting to hear insights on Del Amitri and his personal evolution as a songwriter from Currie. Enjoyed the Q&A very much!

    Susan

  2. Posted December 23, 2010 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    I’m a 21-year-old who’s loved the Dels since I was a child. Justin’s music really made me who I am – something I’m sure he’d find tragic in a way, but it’s true nevertheless.

  3. Posted December 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Justin has such a beautiful outlook on music in general. He’s such an amazing artist. Can’t wait to have him visit us in Portland Oregon. Hope that happens sooner than later.