Justin Currie is a busy man. Nevertheless, when gives you his time he doesn’t do things by halves. He’s a a legend on the Scottish music scene, but he’s as down to Earth as any of the guys I’ve interviewed. He’s played to full houses and nearly empty rooms and remembers what it’s like to be starting out and making his name. He’s direct, and honest, a guy who long ago ceased having to worry what other people think. He doesn’t hold back. It’s refreshing.
You began with Del Amtiri, in the early 80’s. Talk us through the start of Del Amitri. Did you really put up a sign in a record shop?
After my schoolmates, Donald Bentley and James Scobbie, left the band to go to university in 1982 I assumed that was it for Del Amitri. But after a drunken conversation with John Dingwall, who had released our first material via a flexi-disc issued with his fanzine Stand And Deliver, I decided otherwise and began to advertise for guitarists.
McCormick’s music shop on Bath Street was the only real hub for that sort of thing and I put up a weird note with a drawing on their board soliciting meetings with anyone who wanted to join myself and a drummer to write and perform original material influenced by Josef K and The Fall.
I met a whole load of wankers in the Equi café on Sauchiehall Street, most of whom seemed to want to be lead singers in some slick eighties glamour band. Iain Harvie was the only real human being I came across during that arduous process. He had just come back from working on a farm on the east coast and was wearing a tweedy second-hand jacket with a Captain Scarlet badge on the left lapel. I thought “That’ll do nicely …”
Their first album came out in 1985. What was the reception like?
Oh, awful. We had been a “bubbling under” indie band for a few years with a well-received independent single and two Peel sessions under our belt, but after Melody Maker stuck us on the cover and claimed we might just be the future of UK “jangle-pop” there was an understandable backlash. The weekly, Sounds, having previously made us “single of the week” in ’83, and being pissed off that we did the Melody Maker thing, gave our album review to a photographer who savaged us quite magnificently. Similar things happened elsewhere.
A shame really, because it is an excellent album of its era and the only hope we had was the music press – it wasn’t radio material at all. I am extremely fond of that record and I think it remains our only serious musical achievement.
Why was it four years before your next one came out?
Where do you wish to start? We spent most of the last half of ’85 and early ’86 trying to get out of our contract with Chrysalis, who were determined to turn us into a shiny pop act like the fucking Housemartins. Prefab Sprout, our contemporaries with whom we had once shared a bill back in the early eighties had turned into a luxurious pop product after finally having a hit with When Love Breaks Down. All the record companies wanted their indie acts to polish up their productions and follow suit. That wasn’t our thing at all. We were “ART”!
Finally, after threatening to have our fans stage a sit-in at their London offices (we even had T-shirts printed – “Release The Dels”) the label let us go. Then we spent our last two grand on airfares to the US, where our manager, Barbara Shores, had set up a completely fan-supported tour. The true story of that extraordinary, chaotic and life-changing tour could fill a short book.
We were destitute, desperate and on the point of giving up when those US fans picked us up and gave us the kiss of life. We were re-born. We returned wiser, louder and determined that we could be anything that we wished to be, and from that point on Iain and I became the only writers in the band. The music moved centerfield, the lyrics opened up and we ditched the strictures of obsessive originality and embraced old styles that were new to us – folk-rock, the New Country, Neil Young and Tom Petty. That was 1986.
In ’87, Iain and I joined a country band doing Hank Williams and Patsy Cline covers and wrote and wrote. We fired our guitarist, Bryan Tolland, and hired a rock/funk genius by the name of Mick Slaven. By August, after recording two sets of demos with good producers we had every major record company in London and two from the US offering us ridiculous deals.
With the careful guidance of Barbara Shores we manipulated the feeding frenzy to get the contract we wanted with the only company she was after – A&M, with godlike A&R guru Chris Briggs our key man at the label. That was 1987.
In ’88 we made a disastrous attempt to record Waking Hours with charlatan US producer, David Kershenbaum, whom I had suggested because of his work on Joe Jackson’s debut album Look Sharp. He was an arse, his engineer was an arse and we were too inexperienced to realised we were making an arse of a record.
After three months, and probably two hundred grand, we had a meeting with Chris Briggs in the St James Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in LA and decided to abandon ship and start again. Without that support from Chris at A&M we’d have disappeared without trace one more time. We came home, licked our wounds and hired Hugh Jones, who produced the first album. By the start of ’89 it was finally done after God knows how many studios and sessions. At the end of that process we had fired a guitarist and lost his replacement, fired our drummer and finally seen our manager and mentor, Barbara, resign due to stress. That was the end of the fucking eighties. Good riddance.
Waking Hours was a stormer of an album. Talk us through the process or writing some of those songs. Did that album change your life?
I wrote like a demon throughout the end of ’86 and all of ’89 mainly at the behest of Iain and Barbara. I think they thought I was capable of being a proper songwriter, whereas I’d always seen myself as a lyric writer with a band, like Ian Curtis or Mark E Smith.
But things came flooding out, some of it workable, some of it ghastly, but the group at that time, with Paul Tyagi drumming and Mick Slaven on guitar (who also contributed to the writing) really got their hands dirty arranging the material. That encouraged me enormously and I kept developing as a writer. Iain was writing in a more Americana vein which dovetailed nicely with my songs. He was using new tunings and traditional flavours with an odd, Scottish twist.
I have screeds of tapes of those writing rehearsals from that time and the quality is remarkable. The things we threw away then were better than the things we would have used a few years later.
Del Amitri were hugely successful for a time, with singles even cracking the US charts. What’s it like to be the fulcrum of such success?
It’s an exaggeration to say “hugely”.
We broke into the charts in the UK at the start of 1990 and got on the radio in the US with one single, Kiss This Thing Goodbye.
That led to a lot, a fuck of a lot, of touring but not million-selling albums. Our success was beautiful in that we were never so famous that we had to endure the shit that comes with celebrity – tabloid intrusion, colossal commercial pressure, stalkers, drug addiction – but we were on the radio with self-written tunes so we could afford to live and tour. It was the most fun you could possibly have, barring having a party in space with all your friends and family and a limitless supply of drink and drugs. I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel that we had that experience. All that and a great record company too.
In 2002, the Del Amitri project appeared to have come to an end. How big a disappointment was it when Mercury dropped you over a perceived lack of sales on Can You Do Me Good? Was it a raw deal? How do you look back on it?
We tried to get dropped by Universal/Mercury/Whoever-the-fuck-owned-our-contract for the last few years of our existence. We were railroaded (partly by our ex-lawyer who’d become Polygram chairman) into releasing a goddamn greatest hits well before we felt it was appropriate.
Those horrible warblers The Beautiful South had had such gargantuan success with their best-of collection that all the stupid record companies followed suit and went into a frenzy of issuing hits packages – often by artists who had only released two studio albums, sometimes ONE. We didn’t feel we should have to release a rip-off hits album until the end of our six album deal.
But, in their wisdom, the company issued our best-of after just four records. We knew that was effectively the end of our career but they still held on to us after the greatest hits had done quite badly, forcing us to demo song after song for nearly four years without letting us into the studio.
We lost direction, to be honest. Finally we managed to persuade them to let us make Can You Do Me Good? but by then it was all over and they had no interest in promoting an album by an act they knew they were going to drop.
I have mixed feelings about that record. Iain and I had done that predictable thing of getting into sequencing, samples and digital editing because so many of the great records of the mid-to-late-nineties had been using the new technology. I’m not convinced it suited us. I think we should have reacted against that and gone rock minimalist!
It was a weird time – that depressing gap between the Britpop/Rave-scene drug orgy and the new rock bands of the early 21st century like The Strokes and later The Arctic Monkeys. It was the only time when spods like Norman Cook and Moby could have become global superstars. It was horrible.
What it did do was gave you a chance to do other things. You were with a band called Button Up in 2003. Talk us through that period, and what it was like.
Button Up were an existing R&B/Soul instrumental band whom I admired. They played at Mark Robb’s fantastic original Buff Club on Sauchiehall Street and they made me dance. When the Dels got dropped, I kind of begged their drummer, Ross MacFarlane, to give me a gig and, very kindly, he duly obliged so we did a bunch of shows together with me as guest singer. It was great fun and very freeing to be singing classic and obscure soul numbers to club audiences who had never listened to Del Amitri. It also meant I didn’t have to play bass, which was a massive release. It probably helped me as a singer too. In soul music the ageing voice is celebrated – in pop it is despised.
You also got involved with a project called Strings Attached. Tell us a little about that.
I got asked to do that through Aiden O’Rourke, the genius fiddle player with Blazing Fiddles and Lau. I’d met him in a bar one night after he’d got off a plane from San Francisco and he and his girlfriend invited me and mine to decamp back to their flat, where he proceeded to leap onto their coffee table to deliver the most Hendrix-esque, insanely brilliant fiddle solo you’ll ever witness.
Blazing Fiddles had a project called Strings Attached which was a folk group with five fiddles allied to a sizeable brass section featuring the wonderful trombonist, Rick Taylor. Basically a sort of folk orchestra. They got a bit of funding to expand this into a concert for Celtic Connections featuring me, Eddie Reader and Colin McIntyre singing a few songs.
That show later did a short tour. I also did some singing with a big band which came through the supremely talented Ryan Quigley. It was a lovely time to experiment. I’m just a punk rocker, essentially, so I took all of this with a pinch of salt, or perhaps more appropriately, sulphate. I’ll never forget the fun those gigs were. An amateur amongst professionals, a yeller amongst musicians.
I had a lot of fun reading about the band that called itself The Uncle Devil Show. Talk to us about that and about the album they released.
They are a bunch of rip-off cunts who tried to sound like me and my friends and I will not speak of them. May they rot in hell for all eternity with the caterwauling of their horrid music forever ringing in their tin ears.
You also released two solo albums prior to that. Talk to us briefly about those.
Erm, well the first one is very, very sad and the second one is a shade jollier. What Is Love For and The Great War. Still available in any derelict record shop.
And of course, we also the release of number 3, Lower Reaches. Talk to us about the album itself, how it came about and the reception it’s got.
The thing about not selling any records is you tend to get kinder reviews. Del Amitri received terrible reviews all the way through the nineties but we sold a few albums and got played on the radio so it didn’t matter, aside from the pasting your ego took every time you released an LP.
I think the three solo albums are fantastic, and I’m immensely proud to have found a way to release what is ostensibly quite uncommercial material. I love many of the songs I have written in the last ten years. But if you offered me radio play and commercial success, but with savage critical reception, I’d take it any day of the week. However, if you told me I’d have to put one song like Angels on every album I’d take obscurity forever.
I once did a piece for the Famous Tartan Army Magazine on the Del Amitri single “Don’t Come Home Too Soon”, about the lyrics and the honesty in them. Your song lyrics always carry that honesty. You write from the heart. First, tell us how that song came about.
Well, we’d been touring the US almost non-stop between ’95 and ’97 so I felt a little sentimental about Scotland when the football team qualified for the ’98 World Cup. I wrote a love song to the team, cunningly disguising it as a sort of good luck message to a relative from the “old country” sung by a Scottish uncle to his niece going out to the US to find her fortune.
I thought the Yanks would hear it that way anyway, and I thought it would amuse me that secretly I was singing about a bloody football team. However, when my friends heard it they became very keen that I let on to the powers that be what it was about. That way it might get to be the “official” song and they’d all get free tickets.
My manager and record company were also keen as they saw it as a way to get Del Amitri back on the radio after a lukewarm reception to Some Other Parade, which came out in ’97 and was the start of our decline. I, however, was much less keen, so I held out hoping that some other idiot would write an uptempo, jingoistic, triumphalist Scotland World Cup song while we could sneak ours out “unofficially”.
But no bugger wrote anything decent, so I relented and went with the programme, which was a disaster in many respects. I’m not comfortable with any sort of patriotism so my “attitude” didn’t sit well with many of the fans.
People loathed the song and actually blamed me for Scotland’s early exit from the tournament. It’s a fool’s game mixing sport with music – like mixing dancing with painting – don’t fucking do it.
When did you start writing songs? What are the things that inspire you when you are writing a song? How has your writing evolved over time?
I started writing punk songs in 1978, I guess. I don’t think I wrote anything actually listenable on my own until about 1986. Inspiration is a dirty word to writers. None of us really know why we write or where good songs come from. It’s a very dark art and impossible to control or predict. As for its evolution it’s not for me to say. I hope, more than anything, I’ve got much simpler but I’m not sure if that’s the case. I’m still too verbose and desperate to impress to be a really good songwriter.
Looking back over your career, are there things you would do differently if you could go back and do them over again?
I’d have gone to an English university and got a degree and become an insufferably bitter bore, owning a wine bar and dying of liver failure. No, it’s all good – I’ve been enormously lucky and massively rewarded for possessing a middling talent and a pretty vicious drive.
Do you have any advice for those who are just starting in the music business? Or those who are looking good, but haven’t made the breakthrough yet?
Nobody ever knows what will happen next. Anyone who thinks you’re shit is just as likely to be right as be wrong. Besides – it makes no difference – even if you’re truly shit, the chances are still the same whether you’ll make it or not. Very, very slim. So, if you’re enjoying yourself doing it – you’re probably doing it all wrong.
Who do you listen to Justin? Who gets you Amped Up?
I like Bill Callahan’s new album, Dream River. I dote on Pete Doherty whom I consider the UK’s finest songwriter of the last twenty years. Bob Dylan’s life’s work will never be bettered and it remains a mystery to me why Glasgow’s The Leopards are so overlooked.
I listen to Bach and Beethoven when I’m too fucked to think and I have a penchant for big dirty guitar riffs, ridiculous lyrics and out-of-time drums. I will adore The Beatles until I die and Esther Phillips and Nina Simone can out-sing anyone in the catalogue. Amy Winehouse is irreplaceable and Johnny Rotten is still the King of Rock and Roll.
This article was originally posted in Amped Up Scotland magazine.