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Cover Story: Del Amitri • “In The Flesh”

| April 30, 2021 | 0 Comments

Del Amitri 2021

 

Over the years, Justin Currie seems to have survived the turbulent music industry on his shrewd wits alone. And he does not suffer any less street-savvy fools gladly. Take, for example, when the Del Amitri frontman was padding his income a few years ago, working part-time as a bartender in his native Glasgow. If he didn’t fancy the cut of your jabbery, self-absorbed jib while serving you, he had a subtly insidious way of letting you know. Nothing blatant and humiliating, he swears. But you got the message nonetheless. “I wouldn’t spike their drinks or anything, but if I didn’t like people, I would give them three times the amount of alcohol in their cocktails than they were expecting,” he snickers while calling to discuss his band’s thought-provoking new jangle fest Fatal Mistakes, out May 14. “So by the time they came back for their third one, they were basically unconscious — it was very satisfying. They got drunk so quickly because I was giving ‘em so much booze that they just went home, which was great.” His other pint-pulling secret? “If you’re in a band and you’re selling cocktails, give all the other musicians free cocktails so that when you’re looking for musicians yourself, they’ll work for you,” he says. You had five jars of Guinness, gratis, during his shift last week? “Hey! You owe me a guitar part!” he reckons.

Such vulpine cleverness could account for why this scrappy Scotsman has survived for nearly four decades in fickle showbiz, as both the anchor of Del Amitri — whose career kicked off with the 1995 hit “Roll to Me” — and as a solo performer with four folksy albums under his belt. Of course, a good deal of his perpetual appeal is his truly timeless, whiskey-seasoned warble, easily one of the best — and most instantly recognizable —voices in modern rock. And he sounds stronger and more R&B-assured than ever on Fatal Mistakes, which the bassist recorded in March of 2019, pre-lockdown, in a concise three-week session with longtime Del Amitri guitarist Ian Harvie. An early single set the misanthropic stage — “Close Your Eyes and Think of England,” a solemn piano dirge set in a Dystopian post-Brexit Britain whose title (a female reference to unwanted sexual advances) works as a wicked double entendre. But on this seventh group set, Currie still has a way with a chiming, ebullient hook coupled with a conversely morose lyrical outlook that could make a thirteen-step trip up to the gallows feel fairly festive; “God doesn’t love you,” he promises in “Musicians and Beer,” and the horizon just grows darker, in “Lonely,” “I’m So Scared of Dying,” “Losing the Will to Die,” and the climate-change-metaphorical “All Hail Blind Love.” Is there a lot happening just beneath the serene surface of his sing-along songs? “Well, hopefully,” he replies cagily. “Bit hopefully, there’s not too much happening ON the surface!” Hey — we told you the guy was crafty!

IE: In the new song “Otherwise,” you sing about “keeping the curtains drawn.” But there’s a family in my neighborhood that keeps their curtains open, blinds pulled up, 24/7. I saw them in there around midnight the other night, obliviously folding clothes and sweeping. Your song kind of reminded me of how odd that was.

JUSTIN CURRIE: I’m usually like that, with the curtains drawn. But it’s been a couple of years now, and I’ve still not replaced the blinds in my living room. And opposite my living room, there’s a building that’s just all offices. So I’ve kinda been taunting them because I rock into the room at 2:00 in the afternoon, and the place is a fucking mess. And you see all of these folks that have been in their offices since 10:00 in the morning, and they must absolutely hate us. It’s brilliant. They can look right into the room and see what absolute scumbags we are and that we don’t actually have a normal job. So they must really resent us, and I find that, too, immensely satisfying.

IE: Have you waved to them? Written messages on placards?

JC: I hope I haven’t. But I might have if I’ve had too much to drink. But I don’t want to seriously taunt them. And there’s a guy who works opposite me, and he comes into his office every day around 7:00 in the morning, and he leaves at 7:00 at night. And all he does is stare at a computer all day, every day, and he comes in on Saturdays sometimes, as well. And I actually feel really sorry for him, and I think, “You poor guy. What a shit life that is.”

IE: When you say ‘we,’ who else is sheltering in place with you, as it were.

JC: My girlfriend, Emma. She’s been living here for seven years. And she had a kind of normal job, working for the tax office for a while, and then she had another normal job, working at night for a bank, doing credit card inquiries on the phone. But for the last couple of months, she’s left that. So I said, “Thank God!” And now we’re living a reasonably normal life. Or normal for us, at least — we’re actually getting enough sleep.

IE: If Outlander has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a whole spiritual side to Scottish culture. Have you been in touch with it or ever seen a ghost or something paranormal?

JC: I’m not a believer in ghosts, and I don’t know much about Scottish history or folklore. So when I’m in ancient parts of Scotland, I don’t know enough to conjure up in my imagination a; these clans or this or that massacre. But sometimes I go walking with people who know about that stuff, and it’s quite interesting because the landscape — once you get into the highlands — just hasn’t changed; it’s been the same for millennia. So it’s quite interesting to imagine, like, “There must have been Vikings walking down this glen at one point, slaughtering people!” Those images do come to mind when you’re walking around the countryside in Scotland, but they come more from movies than they do from history books. Or at least they do in my case, anyway.

IE: Have you ever seen anything that movies can’t explain away?

JC: No, but there’s a phenomenon called a Brocken ghost, and it happens when you’re walking. Sometimes when you’re walking in the high mountains, there’s a weather phenomenon whereby if it’s misty and the sun hits the mist from a certain angle, you see this massive shadow in front of you and your reflection. So it’s actually you, but it looks like a giant, a giant walking towards you. And apparently, it’s horrifying when it suddenly happens. I know people that have seen it, and eventually, they sort of calm down and realize that they’ve seen a Brocken ghost — this weird phenomenon that has to do with water droplets in the air. And I’d like to see that, but it’s supposed to be terrifying.

IE: How did you adapt to pandemic lockdown?

JC: Well, I’ve not been on stage since September 2019, and that was just to play with a friend’s pub band. And the older we get, the less we go out. But I usually go — well, not every week, but I’m usually in a pub on a Friday night at about 6 PM with a bunch of people, so I started really missing that. But when the pubs reopened over the summer last year, I kind of got the fear — I had the COVID Fear, so I didn’t mind sitting outside, but I didn’t want to be sitting inside. So actually, I was in the pub exactly four times last year. So when the pubs finally reopen, I’m gonna go because I do really miss that. I miss just bumping into people that you don’t know that well, and I miss being able to talk across a bar to people and to even talk to a group of people in person. The Zoom thing is okay, but it’s just not as compelling as just being there in the flesh, you know?

IE: Well, that’s the cool concept of the pub, which is short for public house — you can just sit down at a long shared table, drink neighborly beer like Guinness or Boddingtons, and have a great, non-drunken conversation with a friend from down the street or a stranger from around the world. You never know who you’ll meet.

JC: Yeah. What I really like is just to sit next to somebody in a pub on a Sunday night, and he’s ten years retired and used to work in the shipyards, and he’ll tell you about old Glasgow and all these things that you don’t know. But all that stuff’s just cut off from you during COVID, and that’s quite distressing. And in beautiful cities like Paris or Rome, maybe it’s different. But somewhere like Glasgow, which is not a pretty town. To take the people out of it, it’s just awful. It’s just a desert, and it’s really ugly, and there are people just trolling around with nothing to do, looking really miserable. So it’s really the bars and the clubs and the people on the streets that just make it a really entertaining place to live. You take that away, and it’s just awful.

IE: What did you find yourself getting into during all this downtime? Did you write? Do jigsaw puzzles?

JC: I did a bit of writing, but the first two or three things I wrote were so obviously about the lockdown. And I just thought that everybody’s gonna be writing the same song because everybody’s gonna be living the same life. So nobody’s got anything original to say. And it took me about five or six months to write something that wasn’t about the lockdown, and I hope I’ve gotten out of that stage now. But yeah, I’ve just been doing what everybody else has been doing — I’ve been catching up on a lot of movie watching, reading a bit more than I normally do, and getting out for the odd walks. But mainly, I’ve just been doing emails and Zoom. Because the album was finished and we spent quite a long time mixing it, I had to mix it remotely, the rest of the time has been spent just setting up the album, and it’s just been happening. So it’s a bit like working in an office, without the possibility that there might be a gig at the end of it, which is really frustrating. I realized within a couple of months of lockdown that by April, maybe May, it was the longest I’d ever spent not being on a stage since I was 15. And I’m 56, so you really miss that — you miss that adrenaline thing.

IE: Ironically, Fatal Mistakes is almost the perfect soundtrack for these times. And it’s certainly conscious of mortality, with death being mentioned in two song titles alone.

JC: Yes, it is. Death rears its ugly head, and in the most obvious of ways. And I was saying this just yesterday — the songs that tend to cement your reputation most as a writer are, well, songwriters write their best stuff when they’re young; they write their best things before they’re 23. And those songs tend to be better because they’re about all the things you’re discovering, like sex and falling in love and falling out of love. And when you’re this age, you know as much as you’re ever gonna know about that stuff, so you can’t write songs about those things anymore. So you end up writing about people getting ill, or people getting better, or people dying. That subject matter is in your head, so it’s gonna come out. And you lose a few friends along the way, and my brother-in-law died before we finished writing the record, so that kinda crops up in songs. But I mean, more people that I know have died in my 50’s than have died during all the preceding decades of my life. It’s weird. It’s really weird. Especially when people of your own generation are dying — that’s really surreal. And my mom’s still around, but my dad died of COVID about a year ago. But that was a blessing in disguise because he was in a nursing home for eight fucking years. So that was actually a positive thing. But I’m not looking forward to my mom dying at all.

IE: So what’s your take on mortality, then?

JC: Well, a lot of my friends said that when you get to 50….because I didn’t particularly expect to get to 50. But when I got to 50, I felt quite jubilant. I thought, “Well, I’ve made it this far — that’s quite good going!” And unless you’ve had a really awful life, you get to 50, and you think, “Now that’s a pretty good life, you know?” So one would like to think that if you then get, say, a cancer diagnosis, that you’re not gonna be gnashing and wailing with anger and distress. But I probably still will be, even though I know I’ve had a great life — I should probably move aside and let other people have a go. But — that being said — nobody wants to know that they’re gonna die, under any circumstances, you know?

IE: What exactly is “Mockingbird, Copy Me Now” about??

JC: “Mockingbird” is about a brow-beaten husband whose spouse constantly mimics him to take the piss out of him, so he eventually decides that he’s gonna kill himself because he thinks that she’ll copy him doing that, and then he’ll get his revenge on her.

IE: “Second Staircase,” for some reason, reminded of the great Mary Roberts Rinehart locked-room mystery “The Spiral Staircase.” The song itself feels like a murder mystery.

JC: Yeah. It’s a bit like “Clue,” isn’t it? It’s got that atmosphere about it, and the music has got that murder-mystery thing about it. But for a lot of the songs I wrote on this Del Amitri album — I pulled a lot of things out of a notebook that was full of titles and spare verses that I’d never really found a use for. And just because I was writing for Del Amitri, they suddenly found a wee kind of home. So I just had that title. And usually, when I write a title, I know what the song is gonna be, so the song will get written within a few weeks of coming up with a title. But that particular notebook was filled with titles that, well, I didn’t know what they were. But they sounded nice. So when I was doing the writing for Fatal Mistake, I would look at the titles, and some days you just suddenly knew what they were about. It had just taken me 17 years to find out what that sequence of words means.

IE: If you read between a lot of this material, you seem to be considering humanity’s narcissistic obsession with the technology that powers their social media, to the point where they can’t see our inexorable march — or gallop — to our own extinction.

JC: Yeah. Just constantly looking to the middle of your phone. What I find extraordinary is the rate of change that we’ve recently gone through. I mean, things in our parents’ generation were changing fast, but they weren’t changing anywhere near this fast. And it’s almost like the rate of change itself is just shaking the foundations of the planet — it’s shaking the foundations of society, it’s shaking the ecology, the environment, and it’s as if the physics of the universe just cannot cope with this constant redoubling of data and intelligence and computing power, and the way that impacts how we socialize. So, on the one hand, you say that untrammeled Capitalism appears to be destroying this planet. But at the same time, just the rate of change is destroying the planet because nobody knows how to control any of this.  Mark Zuckerberg has no fucking clue what he’s doing — all he’s doing is trying to grow a company and connect people. He has no idea that his company could be undermining the social fabric of society because none of this has ever been done before. These big tech guys have no idea what they’re doing, and that’s why they’re all building rockets to the moon — they’re all thinking, “Oh shit! This is bizarre! We didn’t expect this to happen!” One day I’ll be reading a long article about investment and climate-change-related technology, and I’ll think, “Maybe there is hope for the future of human civilization in the next few hundred years.” And then other days, you think, “No, we’re heading into hell. And we’re heading into hell at an incredibly fast rate.” I was a big Popular Science reader. I remember reading some Popular Science book about Antarctica, and a lot of these scientists down at the South Pole — who are taking measurements of the ice and realizing how much the Anthropocene is destroying the equilibrium of the planet — are going, “You know, you guys up there are fucked. We’re kind of okay down here, living on Mars in our survival pods. But inevitably, this environmental devastation will lead very quickly to civil unrest, and to wars and mass migrations and worse.” It’s all been predicted, and it’s been going on for 20 years. Scientists fucking predicted it, but all these politicians — because they’re so desperately trying to get re-elected — are simply pretending it’s not happening. They’re just liars, total fucking liars. I mean, claiming that they can decarbonize by 2050 is just a lie.

IE: I’m amazed this record didn’t turn out even darker.

JC: Ha! Well, we kind of selected the songs for their pop appeal. So there were quite a few things that didn’t make it onto the record because it was just too fucking grim! There was one called “The Risks of Rome,” which is about rich people on a yacht, just sort of fiddling while Rome burns. And there’s one called “Picking up Lots that Drowned,” about death. And there’s one called “Stillborn,” about people marching into the future with optimism, but to their certain slaughter. Heh-heh. They all might end up on a solo record one day!

-Tom Lanham

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