I did this for Free Williamsburg, original piece here
Justin Currie's current US tour just took in his first ever Brooklyn show, at Rough Trade in Williamsburg (20th of September), and also included a stop at City Winery (23rd of September). As singer/songwriter in Del Amitri and now into his third album as a solo artist, Currie has ran the gauntlet in a 30-year career.
A slight mix-up means we end up talking before the show at City Winery on Varick Street instead of Rough Trade, it's my first time to the venue and while I tend to prefer beer stained walls and sticky floors to refined wooden decor and expensive wine, it's readily apparent that the venue treats the artists well.
Del Amitri's self-titled debut album, released in 1985, is begging to be rediscovered by a new generation hungry for arty indie-pop (think Orange Juice meets The Smiths meets Television. I know, I hate lazy reference points too, but it's as good as all those band's best moments). If that pricks your interest, at the bottom of this post you can listen to the band's John Peel session from 1985.
After the debut, Del Amitri's sound moved in a more traditional direction and they scored a string of top-40 hits in the UK over the course of 5 albums (1989-2002) including Nothing Ever Happens, Always the Last to Know and Tell Her This. In the US, Justin is mostly known for Del Amitri's top-ten radio hit, Roll To Me; it's one of those time-old examples of "this song is not really representative of the band's output". Regardless, let's not downplay the beauty of a good pop song, however throwaway it may be. There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Justin Currie's ability to write moving lyrics for the lonely, heartbroken, misanthropic and disenfranchised; sprinkled with just enough hope for us all to carry on.
It has been a fairly busy 18-months for Currie; recording and releasing his third solo album, Lower Reaches, in Texas with producer Mike McCarthy (who has produced the likes of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Spoon) before a reunion tour with Del Amitri saw them play their first shows in 12 years. That tour has now spawned a live album (the band's first), which you can pre-order here.
Free Williamsburg: Was the show at Rough Trade the first time you’ve played in Brooklyn?
Justin Currie: It was, the first time we’ve really been in Brooklyn. I’ve done various bits of promo, but never wandered around and never had a hotel in Brooklyn which we do this time and was great. I walked the Brooklyn Bridge on a day off, which was hellish… packed with tourists. I just wanted a bit of lower Manhattan as it had been a while since I’ve been here. But I kind of wish I’d just stayed in Brooklyn, there’s enough real people still there and plenty of nice places to hang out. I ended up in a Polish neighbourhood on Manhattan Ave and thought “hey, New York, hello!”, and then I had a wee wonder around the wealthier neighbourhoods either side of where we were staying in Downtown Brooklyn and not all of it was completely up its arse. I saw some real beautiful tenements around Prospect Park.
FW: Certainly East of the Park is still fairly untouched.
JC: I was West of the park, obviously fairly rich people live there, but it wasn’t as insufferable as say, the Upper West Side and things.
FW: Obviously Williamsburg as well has changed a lot over the years…
JC: It was the hip place to be 15 years ago “Oh, Williamsburg, wow”…
FW: Yeah, unfortunately now my favourite venue in the city, Death By Audio, is closing in November, which is a real shame. It’s the nature of the city, really…
JC: It’s the nature of capitalism! If they don’t have good housing stock, they knock them down and build for the rich. The poor and the artists get moved around from pillar to post every decade.
FW: It’s almost like you can’t even have a music venue anymore – this venue (City Winery) is obviously a restaurant and a winery, you played Rough Trade the other night which is a record store and there are various other mishmashes. There’s a dwindling market for just going to see bands play.
JC: It’s not enough, it doesn’t have added value.
FW: You’ve talked about the virtues of boredom in the past. After recording a solo album, playing shows with Del Amitri and now a solo tour of the US, you must be having a terrible time!
JC: Haha, well, I still haven’t been that busy. Busier than normal, but I was supposed to come to the US in April so I would have come off the Del Amitri thing, got pissed for a week and then rehearsed for this. Which I did, and then it got postponed so I ended up with two months off, so I wrote a couple of songs but just went to the pub. So yes, I was sufficiently bored that I got bored of going to the pub! I do like being busy, but I do stand by the idea that being bored is an absolute pre-requisite for doing anything remotely interesting.
FW: Your third solo album, Lower Reaches just came out in the states on Compass Records and comes with a couple of bonus tracks, can you say something about those songs?
JC: Well I really hate putting bonus tracks on records, because there’s a reason why they’re not on the album. I spend a lot of time, as everyone does, over the sequence and that sort of stuff, it just buggers that up, but they insist on it. I’m glad they’re out there but I had to stick them at the end, because I wasn’t going to rejig the whole bloody thing. It’s a bit irritating because I still have that puritanical idea that Sgt. Pepper is Sgt. Pepper and you don’t put Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane on just because it was recorded at the same time, they aren’t part of that story. But, fuck it, what’s the point in being precious in this day and age.
FW: And there are a couple of new Del Amitri tracks that you just posted online, what time period are they from?
JC: It could be any time before 2008, me and Iain did bits of writing and recording from 2003 onwards. We started out trying to go real out there and making a radical sort of electronic record. To the point where Iain would randomly program bits of midi and then loop snippets of that, but the more we did that the more it started to just sound like Del Amitri with synths which was a bit odd. No-one really liked any of it apart from us so it never got released. I think we’ll just end up putting them on soundcloud. I mean, nobody listens to them but at least they’re sort of out there. The songs sounded like us but the production didn’t so no-one wanted anything to do with it.
FW: I remember some of the songs from the time; Thaw Freeze Thaw in particular was a great song.
JC: It is a great song, there’s a load of great songs, about 18 in total and I really like all of them, and Iain really likes them, but nobody within our structure relates to them. There’s tonnes of stuff in the vault from the late 90s and early 00s that we should really just put up there for our own amusement.
FW: I always thought you’d be a great box-set band, but I suppose the re-issues (Waking Hours, Change Everything and Twisted) from this year curtailed that?
JC: Yeah, there’s more of that stuff that has never been released but is now being released, much to my irritation. You meet people who have those things or know about those things and you feel a kinship with them because only a few people have got them. But eventually everything will be available all the time. Having any editorial process over what you release, and the status of what you release… that’s a b-side and there’s a reason why that’s a b-side… it’s impossible. It’s possible now that streaming media rules the industry that a really obscure track by a famous band could end up as the most played thing that they have. I suppose that’s ok, but it’s also odd if you’re anally retentive control freak like a lot of people are.
FW: It’s a bit of a double-edged sword as well, especially with Del Amitri fans. Not many people just like Del Amitri, if you like them at all they’re one of your favourites, if not favourite. The fans who were at last night’s show will be here tonight, singing along to all the obscure tracks.
JC: I really like all that, and as we were saying before, and I hope this doesn’t sound disingenuous because it isn’t… but I really love Del Amitri and I always have. Before we did the first gig on the reunion tour I almost burst out crying because the whole thing was filled with so much emotion. So when I meet people like that in bars, I’ll happily talk to them like a fan, because I know all that stuff as well. Iain not so much, he thinks a bit differently, maybe it’s because when you write the lyrics you have a bit more feeling for them. I think if I were to lay awake at night I can probably just about remember every lyric I’ve ever written, so I can always have those conversations with super-freak fans and quite enjoy it. It’s quite stimulating because you just think “oh, I’ve got the same tastes as you”, haha… strange.
FW: If Every Song’s the Same is to be seen as a challenge or a wish to be impressed by something then you’ve certainly had that this year with Withered Hand (New Gods) and Sun Kil Moon (Benji). What is it about those records that really stand out?
JC: You’re the first person who has noticed that’s what the song is about, people think it’s about teaching people to write a fucking song! I just find... I don’t really listen to lyrics because I don’t find lyrics that interesting, but when they are really interesting your ears prick up, you think “fuck sake, I’d better give that a listen”. So this year has been unusual for me, I knew the Withered Hand record would be great because I loved the first record, but I was really surprised by that Sun Kil Moon record, it knocked me sideways. They’re very different lyrically, but they both sound autobiographical which I like. But you can go a decade without hearing a record with really good lyrics that you say to someone “listen to the fucking lyrics”. I’m not a particularly big hip-hop fan and I don’t know an awful lot about hip-hop, but part of the reason I was listening to it in the 90s was because no-one was writing lyrics except for hip-hop artists. Everyone else was writing Oasis-type hits. So yeah, Sun Kil Moon was a real surprise. Bill Callahan also usually writes interesting lyrics, a bit more abstract and mysterious but I do always enjoy those records, just something to think about.
FW: The Sun Kil Moon record is just… it’s a massacre! I’ve never known so many people to die on an album.
JC: It’s amazing, and you kind of think it’s all true, maybe it isn’t and doesn’t matter but it’s quite remarkable. He pulls it off as well, there are some funny bits on it too, like I Love My Dad… it’s just an astonishing record. It’s one of the few records that I’ve ever bought that I’ve listened to five times in a row straight away.
FW: Death is a theme in your lyrics at points but it’s not so in your face, is it a subject you’re deliberately subtle about?
JC: I haven’t experienced that much death, you think about it more as you get older I think. I’m 50 this year and one of the common themes with people I’ve spoken to around 50 is, you don’t really mind so much if you die than if you’re under 50. Certainly when you’re in your 30s you seem to have so much more to do that you’re really terrified of dying. Obviously I’m terrified of getting ill but I’m not terrified of dying because I feel like I’ve had an amazing fucking life. But everybody’s parents start dying so you do… it becomes a more frequent thing. You just try to turn it into a nice metaphor that people can hum rather than oh woe is me. It’s that poetic conceit; most poetry is concerned with love and death and beauty and that’s about it and at the end of the day so is songwriting really. A lot of the early rock and roll records, blues records especially are about dying, so it’s not a morbid thing, it’s just a very fascinating thing to get inside and finding ways of singing about it, you can write love songs about it.
FW: And some of the Withered Hand music is basically just pop.
JC: Yeah it’s really indie pop and great lyrics, it’s quite unusual.
FW: I think that’s the perfect combination, you have something that sounds beautiful but when you scratch under the surface a little…
JC: Yeah and that’s great because you can have hits, and the people that really get it will love you. Like REM’s Losing My Religion has a nice mandolin but the lyrics are quite elegiac. I wish I could do that, I’m at an age now where I find it almost impossible to write fast songs, I actively force myself to write fast songs and they often sound a bit shallow. So yes, I’m quite jealous of Withered Hand haha.
FW: You played with him recently didn’t you?
JC: I did! I did it because I was asked but it was a real honour and I got to hang out with him and he was dead funny, really nice, great night.
FW – In terms of writing songs, you seem quite prolific in the number of songs you write, but there is usually a few years between actual releases.
JC: I’m a lot less prolific than I was, I don’t really count how many songs I write. But I don’t obsess about not writing, so if I don’t write a song for a year I’m not going to beat myself up about it. If you don’t have a band or a record company waiting for you to deliver the material, you don’t write those songs that you feel that you have to write. And I’m quite happy not to write them. They might have commercial appeal but I’m not really concerned about that. I’d love to have hits for fucks sake, but I’m glad I’m not in a position where I feel I have to write hits, it’s a young man’s game because you’ve got that energy and desire to get yourself heard.
FW: Have you ever been asked to write for other people?
JC: No and I don’t think… the stuff I write doesn’t tend to get covered either because I don’t think it translates very well. I don’t think I’ve liked any of the covers I’ve heard. Although there are a couple of good ones of Driving With the Brakes On; one is quite a lot better than Del Amitri, it's by an Australian country singer. I’ve been stuck in rooms with people who don’t have commercial careers and it’s just painful and I just turn it down now. When there’s a co-write it just means that you write the song and they put their name on it, which I find galling.
FW: So at this stage are you looking to just record an album and then find distribution for it?
JC: What I do next I don’t know, don’t have a fucking clue what to do next. We spend less and less money on every record and we made less and less money, it’s like vanity publishing, it doesn’t have any validity really. I’m quite happy to make records for nothing.
FW: It seems like people have to perform these days to make money.
JC: Yeah, I mean I can only really make money in the UK and only once or twice a year but I can’t really do that forever so it’s a bit of a mystery as to how you turn it over. And I’m not complaining because I live off past glories and royalties, I feel sorry for people that didn’t have that stroke of luck. But those royalties eventually run out and I can’t really do anything else so I have to figure out a way of… whoring my ass to make a living because I really don’t want to do anything else, like working in restaurants, I’m too old for it. So yeah, fuck knows.
FW: You see a lot of bands these days just going the nostalgia route, which is fine, everyone has to make a living, but I personally tend to want to see bands doing new material.
JC: Yeah, that Del Amitri thing we did we were really worried about that but we ended up finding the nostalgia quite gratifying. We thought about doing a new record but no-one would put any money up for it and we wouldn’t make anything back after the costs to record it, it would have felt really forced. But that being said, if we’d had a year’s work of Del Amitri stuff without new songs it would have gotten pretty stale pretty quickly. The three weeks we did was fine but even towards the end I thought even though we have a lot of material it could have gotten very old very quickly. It was great fun and we got paid pretty well for a couple of gigs and I’m very grateful for that, but yeah without doing one or two new songs you just start to feel like you’re a jukebox.
FW: I flew back to the UK for a couple of shows and I thought they were fantastic.
JC: Which shows?
FW: Oxford and London.
JC: Hammersmith was great, and the audience was quite drunk which was a good laugh.
FW: Oxford can definitely be a bit sedate…
JC: Where was that… The Apollo?
FW: Yeah, well it’s the New Theatre now.
JC: I can’t really remember that show actually to be honest…
JC: The one disappointing thing about that tour was that only Hammersmith Odeon sold out, well Glasgow oversold but it’s a big venue so they just keep releasing tickets. But none of the other gigs sold out and we were hoping that if they did then we’d get put on some festivals in the summer and that would have been great but that didn’t happen. But we knew that was a risk and I’m glad we did it because it was really good fun.
FW: It must be hard to gauge after 12 years, what the demand would be like?
JC: Well we had no idea, we just didn’t know how many we would sell. The previous tour was tough in the south playing to half-empty theatres. We were fine in the North but Brighton was hard, Southampton, etc, so we really didn’t know. The Glasgow thing was a real surprise because it was the most people we’d headlined to ever and it was a frighteningly big crowd so we were kind of shitting ourselves. But we pulled it off, thankfully the audience all stood up and they were great in a difficult venue so in some ways it was a success, it depends on your view.
FW: How much thought do you put into your setlists each night? I remember on the Can You Do Me Good tour that a few people booed after you played Jesus Saves, do you worry about playing something like Falsetto somewhere in the middle of America, for example?
JC: Did they? Fantastic. No, I would never think about that at all. I just assume that someone who comes to see someone like me, even if they were a rampant republican they’d be liberal enough to understand the nature of free speech. The only time I’ve ever been barracked was in Belfast, we used to do the Undertones song You’ve Got My Number Why Don’t You Use It, and I introduced the song by saying it was by a band from Derry and someone throw a 50p coin that hit me right in the forehead, for not saying it was a band from Londonderry. That really infuriated me, fucked me right off, but yeah I never have to think about stuff like that, it’s not an issue at all.
FW: Obviously the referendum (a vote for Scottish independence from the UK) didn’t go the way you hoped…
JC: Well you say it didn’t but it did six months ago because I was really against independence. But the debate became way more political than I thought it would. I thought it would end up being about nationalism, patriotism and all that fucking shite. But it wasn’t, it was just politics, and the politics of the left, the proper left in Scotland, not the fucking labour party, the sort of radical and progressive left in Scotland including the greens and the socialist parties (not the unions), they were talking total sense. I couldn’t disagree with anything they were saying. So I did the opposite of what the UK national media were accusing scots which is “vote with your head and not with your heart”, my heart was saying stay in the UK, but politically the only way we could get what we want in Scotland is by being an independent country. So it was my head that said we’ve got to vote yes, it became so obvious. And it happened to huge swathes of my generation, who originally thought “no fucking way we’re voting for independence, fuck the nationalists”, but then we got into it big time. That sort of momentum made us all rather stupidly think “fuck, this might actually happen, this could be amazing”, in a way it has been amazing because people are joining the green party and I think it’s pushing the SNP party to the left. The Scottish Labour Party might be over now which is great because they’ve had a virtual hegemony in the councils and become very corrupt and not very representative of the people they’re supposed to represent. It’s really woken up the possibility that it’s not inevitable that we’re going down this ghastly, free-market liberal capitalist road to utter perdition, there might be another way. I’m just sorry that there wasn’t a landslide for Yes, which there would be if they held it in another 10 years.
FW: I was amazed at the turnout.
JC: The postal vote turnout was something like 97%, out of almost 750,000 who applied for postal votes, which is unbelievable. I didn’t vote in 1997 when I would have voted Labour but I was away in LA and I didn’t want to postal vote, and that was an important election, when the tories got kicked out. And the media were a bit slow to realize how big it was, in the last few weeks, everyone was talking about it.
FW: I feel like it’s a bit easier to run a positive campaign about something, saying “yes we can” is easier to sell than “no we shouldn’t”…
JC: Yes, and I was very skeptical about that as well, I didn’t buy into all that. I was asked to participate in a few debates representing No, which I was quite happy to do because I used to be a No. I didn’t in the end partly because I don’t do public speaking, I can’t really think on my feet, but also because I couldn’t find enough convincing arguments for No, most of them were emotional and my feelings towards England, which is a cultural and emotional thing but not a political thing. It was hard, there was no real vision in the No campaign, if there had been a better leader of the Labour party in the UK and could envisage what would happen in the next 20 years and say “look, Europe’s going to move to the left, you want to stay in the UK, don’t worry about UKIP” then I think I would have voted No, but no-one was saying that. Milliband didn’t do anything until the last 2 weeks, by which time he’d lost a third of the Labour vote in Scotland, and I supported Ed Milliband’s fucking leadership, how wrong was I!
FW: Yes, it’s sort of, not even the best of a bad bunch, there’s not really a lot to choose from right now…
JC: Well, a friend really liked Andy Burnham and thought he was the man to go for. At least it wasn’t David Milliband who was just another Blair-ite… but I don’t even know what Ed Milliband stands for or represents anymore.
FW: My only worry about the referendum was if Yes had won, England might fall into a perpetual Conservative leadership.
JC: That did worry me but then I looked at the figures and all of the Labour governments since the 50s would have had a majority anyway without Scottish votes. I don’t really see a divide between England and Scotland apart from a bit of a cultural one. And I felt I’d be betraying the English left by voting Yes, but then I thought that wasn’t true. If anything it would energise the left in England and actually wake them up, so that was another thing that convinced me.
FW: What’s the actual day-to-date like on this particular tour?
JC: It’s been pretty easy so far and we haven’t had any long drives just yet, we’re heading to Chicago tomorrow, but there’s been a lot of time for wandering around so it’s been quite pleasant.
FW: Chicago has always been a good city for you and Del Amitri.
JC: Yeah, Del Amitri always did well there and the last solo tour I did a place called Lincoln Hall which was really great, so I’m looking forward to it.
FW: Last tour you just played Joe’s Pub here and a couple of shows in LA, so this is your first full tour of the country?
JC: No no, the last tours I did technically tour for three weeks, but I did a few shows out East and then flew to Chicago and Milwaukee and then flew West. So I didn’t do anything in the South, but I’m not really doing anything in the South this time, other than Texas. So I have done both coasts and a few in between, but this time we’re driving which is good because we get to see the country.
FW: A friend of mine was impressed that David Garza appears throughout Lower Reaches.
JC: Yes, Daveed, he’s a lovely man, he gave me a copy of his latest solo record which is really good and has a couple of fucking brilliant songs on it. He was good company for me because he’s a bit nearer my age than the other musicians and gave some advice on (producer) Mike McCarthy and the way he works. He’s great, very talented.
FW: I’ve heard he’s quite an enigma when performing live, you never know what you’re going to get.
JC: As a session musician he never plays the same thing twice which is great because you record everything and choose what you want, everything he plays is very interesting. You can tell he’s quite a madcap. He had a couple of brilliant Bob Dylan stories that I will always thank him for which I won’t repeat haha
FW: Did you pick the players on the album yourself or was that Mike McCarthy?
JC: They were sort of run by me because they played on Craig Finn’s (The Hold Steady) solo record that Mike produced, which I enjoyed and noted him as a potential producer, so I knew what they sounded like and didn’t have any worries. Your major worry is if they’re going to cross that taste barrier into some area that you find difficult and how do you shepherd them back to something a bit more tasteful, but they were all great. The refreshing thing about younger players is that they’ll play something that sounds exactly like Keith Richards or Ringo Starr, and we won’t do that because we think “fuck, can’t do that”, but they don’t give a fuck. That’s refreshing because actually, that’s what I like about Ringo Starr because he does that. Getting a guy of my age to sound like someone else, they just won’t do it, even though they probably are playing like someone else and don’t know it, but if you ask them to play like Robert Fripp they just think “oh fuck off”.
FW: Would you go that route again or self-produce next time?
JC: I doubt it, it just costs too much money. I’ll probably go back to something like the first record but I honestly don’t know. Thinking about trying to collaborate with somebody...
*At this stage there is a knock on the door, we’ve already overran and Justin is due to record some songs in the basement of the venue, which you can watch below.*
JC: Oh, sorry…
FW: No, no, thank you very much. I feel bad that I’ve taken up your time!
JC: Not at all, not at all, I was enjoying that!
Follow Justin on Twitter and Facebook (both of which include a great tour diary). Purchase Lower Reaches here.
Justin is currently on tour in the US, remaining dates and ticket links are below:
Del Amitri Peel Session - 1985
Photos by @Chris_Quartly