Chances are that you probably still know Justin Currie best for Del Amitri, the Scottish alternative/crossover outfit who enjoyed a dozen top-40 hits over a decade in the wake of 1990’s classic breakthrough single, Nothing Ever Happens.
But this Glaswegian singer-songwriter went it alone in 2003, by his own admission spending the next four years ‘fannying about writing, drinking and doing any weird non-rock gig’ he was invited along to before releasing his first ‘masterpiece of maudlin’, What Is Love For.
Now, a few years on, he’s promoting his fourth LP, This Is My Kingdom Now, released on his own Endless Shipwreck Records, following 2010’s The Great War and 2013’s Lower Reaches, the songs of old replaced by a tone he describes as ‘suicide in a saucy shirt’, his output rightly continuing to strike a chord, the 52-year-old about to step out for a headline tour with his backing band, The Pallbearers to promote the new record. And from the tracks I’ve heard so far, it’s another winner.
So, I ask him down the line, was recording his latest record an enjoyable experience?
“More enjoyable than the last one, which was quite tough. I started recording at home the year before last, and my idea was to do it all myself, sat at a piano. But a couple of weeks in, the offices outside decided to renovate the building, so for six months I had to down tools because of the racket.”
A tad too much percussion, eh?
The new LP’s a self-release. Does that create more work, or is it worth that for creative control alone?
“Erm … this is my fourth solo record and I don’t ever recall feeling not having creative control. It’s more work to the extent that I’m now the marketing manager though. As well as making it, I’m selling it … and I’m a terrible salesman!”
You seem quite proficient with social media though, from what I’ve seen.
”Everybody’s supposed to be, but it’s something I’d rather not do. I find the whole thing deeply vulgar! The problem with ‘direct to the audience’ internet selling is that the artistes who end up the most successful are those who are best at selling themselves, not necessarily those who make the best music.
“When I was 15, me and my band were quite good at making little leaflets and posters, pasting them up on lampposts. But at 52 I find all that incredibly dull.”
While receiving plenty of praise for his last long player, 2013’s Lower Reaches, recorded in Austen, Texas, with Mike McCarthy, this one appears to be more of a homegrown entity.
“That was the only one where we hired a producer, with me handing all the songs to Mike and letting him choose the songs and arrange them as he saw fit. This album is more back to what I did on the first and second albums, playing a lot of the instruments myself and picking and choosing them myself. I feel more in touch with this and that it’s more my record than the last one.”
The first thing we heard from the new record was the delightful Failing to See, which I tell him serves as a fine advertisement for what he might have in store for us, and should by rights be all over the radio airwaves.
“Well, for that to happen you’d have to hire someone to take your records to those stations, which I can’t afford to do anymore.”
Is that track pretty much indicative of what we have coming our way?
“No, but I don’t think I could choose one song that would be indicative of the rest. I don’t think one song is like the next.”
Tell me about Sydney Harbour Bridge, for example.
“Erm … it’s a bridge that goes over Sydney Harbour.”
I asked for that, didn’t I. ‘Thanks,’ I respond, deadpan, and he laughs, I like to think guiltily. I try another way. It seems from the track-listing that there are quite a few songs about travel on this album.
“Yes, a lot mention or use the sea as a metaphor. That came about after I was offered a gig at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine, coming up with a few songs that mentioned the sea or some maritime theme, a couple especially for that gig, realising I could have a thematic link. A couple didn’t quite make it, but there’s a vague theme echoing in the background.”
Incidentally, at time of going to press I’ve given Sydney Harbour Bridge a few spins, and like the new album’s title track it’s something of a brooding masterpiece. I can report good things about Crybabies and Hey Polly too, with Justin’s rich tones and inventive hooks all over this record from what I’ve heard so far. Again, as you might expect from this talented songsmith.
Anyway, on with the interview, and talking of travelling, when he’s on the road with The Pallbearers these days, does he properly take in his surroundings, rather than just turn up, set up, play, move on?
“I still really love touring, and part of the joy is it’s endlessly stimulating, looking out of a van or hotel room window on a completely different environment every day. I always assumed when we did a lot of touring in the ‘90s that it must have some kind of impact on what you wrote and how you wrote, but I don’t really do enough of that to be able to claim an impact. Nearly everything I write is written in Glasgow, where it’s the same view every day!”
Talk of his home city – according to his own press, ‘Currie lives and breathes in Glasgow, collects beer mats and makes his own cushions’ – leads to a discussion about other bands from the area, coming on to the subject of the early ‘80s Postcard Records scene, and one mutual influence in particular.
“I don’t think I would have formed a band without Orange Juice happening in Glasgow. That changed everything, and almost overnight Glasgow went from being this pub-rock backwater that no one in the music press or the record industry had any interest in, to being this place that was perceived as being incredibly cool. That was really just down to the four people in Orange Juice and Alan Horne of Postcard Records.”
And have you had a chance to get to know Edwyn Collins over the years?
“No. He quite rightly despised every other band in Glasgow, unless he took a particular shine to them, and I’m quite happy to know Del Amitri were despised by Edwyn! But I regard him as a great genius, and one of the greatest poets Scotland ever produced.”
How about the wondrous Teenage Fanclub? Ever on your radar?
“I adore them and buy all their records. They were more out of Belshill and its own special scene, which started a bit later than the postcard bands. Of course, Norman (Blake) was with a few other groups and conceptual projects before he put Teenage Fanclub together. I always thought he was a genius and was really pleased when he got together with Raymond and started making records with them. I was always worried he might just slip between the tracks.”
And what’s on Justin Currie’s turntable right now? What are you enjoying listening to?
“I’m a big fan of Sun Kil Moon, wading my way through his latest opus, which is pretty fascinating. I’m also wading my way through Kendrick Lamar’s latest records.”
Ever get fed up playing those old Del Amitri songs that part of the audience no doubt insist on hearing above all else? I mean, I love Nothing Ever Happens, but it’s a song I first heard in the depths of winter and I tend to equate that with short nights and commuter gloom. For that reason alone, I’m not sure I’d want to play it every night.
“That’s a fair question, but no, partly because there are enough of them that I can pick and choose. I don’t have to play particular songs every night. And there are songs I’ve played every night as a solo artist and with Del Amitri too. It doesn’t particularly bother me. I don’t have a massive problem with that. Maybe that’s sheer vanity.”
I particularly enjoyed your BBC Songwriters Circle appearance in 2010. Have you worked with and kept in touch with your fellow artistes that night, Chris Difford and Boo Hewerdine?
“Yeah, kind of vaguely. We send each other acerbic texts and emails every now and then – old bald men complaining about the state of the climate!”
What comes first writing songs these days – strumming your guitar or tinkling away at the piano?
“I’d say 75 per cent are worked out at the piano, although I try and discipline myself to writing more on guitar. But with the piano it’s a lot more productive, largely because a lot more of the notes are laid out in front of you. It feels like the world’s your oyster.
“I have to add though, I cannot play either! That’s kind of an advantage as you don’t know what you’re doing. But if you hear something in your head it’s quite hard to achieve it.
“Because I was a punk most of the music I was listening to was achievable on a four-string bass, the first thing I started playing. With punk rock you never felt the need to study. Just learning those songs, playing them with one finger on one string, was enough to get you to the point where you could form a band and play gigs.”
“It should be. It’s that deep philosophical question – ‘at the age of 52 are you the same person you were when you were 22?’ And you obviously aren’t. I recognise that person and identify with them really strongly, so it feels like I’m on some kind of continuum … but I’m probably not.”
You insist you’re still a member of Del Amitri, but you’ve been a solo artist for a long time now. Any regrets about going it alone?
“Loads. I never wanted Del Amitri to stop, but it became fairly obvious we’d be on a rapid downhill spiral in terms of amount of people we’d play to, so we took a break. I was writing fairly frequently, and needed an outlet for those songs. Writing and not releasing songs is pretty painful, so it became pretty obvious that was the only way to go if I was writing songs and Del Amitri weren’t active.”
How about the prospect of a Waking Hours 30th anniversary tour in 2018 then?
“I’m sure we’ll do more gigs some stage in the future. Not this year, but maybe next year or the year after. We’d like to do more. It just depends on whether the gigs themselves are worth doing.”
Justin Currie’s tour with The Pallbearers – after an opening night at Perth’s Concert Hall on Friday, May 26th – continues at Holmfirth Picturedrome (Sunday, May 28th), Pocklington Arts Centre (Monday, May 29th), Wolverhampton’s Slade Rooms (Tuesday, May 30th), Liverpool’s Hangar 34 (Wednesday, May 31st, 0844 8000 410 or via this link), Cambridge Junction (Wednesday, May 31st), Islington Assembly Hall (Saturday, June 3rd) and then back north of the border at the Northern Roots Festival, Bogbain Farm, Inverness (Saturday, June 24th).
There are also a dozen live dates this autumn, running from Friday, October 13th at Manchester Academy 3 through to Tuesday, October 31st at Colchester Arts Centre, including one on my patch at Preston Guild Hall’s Live venue on Friday, October 27th (see link). For further information, including full tour details, head to his website. You can also follow Justin via Facebook and Twitter.