When I came across Del Amitri in 1992, it happened in the midst of an important year of musical growth and enlightenment that would find my CD player filled to the brim with new releases from bands like Social Distortion, Rollins Band, the Gin Blossoms, The Jesus and Mary Chain, etc. With musical filler like Kris Kross, Color Me Badd and Right Said Fred hogging the top chart positions, it felt like a bit of a struggle at times to find the quality music that surely was bubbling somewhere slightly below the surface. In the moment, it felt like the ‘90s sucked musically, but as I looked back year by year, I realized how many important albums made their way into my collection during the decade.
Change Everything by the Scottish-bred Del Amitri was one of those albums, released in the early summer of 1992, the perfect album of songs for the halcyon days of my teenage life. These were days that were populated with plenty of warm evenings outdoors, listening to new music with friends and dissecting the lyrical meaning behind it all.
Del Amitri frontman Justin Currie certainly gave the listener plenty to ponder with his lyrics, and if you ever found yourself on the losing end of a miserable relationship, a Del Amitri album could be your new best friend. Over the course of four particular albums, stretching from Waking Hours in 1989 to Some Other Sucker’s Parade in 1997, Del Amitri released some of the most sadly under-rated releases of the ‘90s. (If the mention of Del Amitri conjures only the vision of that “look around your world pretty baby” band acquired via their lone U.S. Top 10 hit “Roll to Me,” you’ve got a lot of catching up to do!) The band toured relentlessly, playing some of the most memorable live concerts I’ve ever seen, with Del Amitri guitarist Iain Harvie (co-founder of the band, and Currie’s main songwriting collaborator) displaying an impressive amount of swagger on-stage, with a weakness for the occasional Motorhead cover.
The release of their sixth album Can You Do Me Good in 2002 (an electronic-leaning departure from the band’s previous work), would prove to be the swan song release for the Dels, to be followed by a period of radio silence, leaving music fans to wonder what would be coming next. (And later, some of those fans started recording their own cover versions on ukelele.)
Currie finally opened the door in 2007 with his debut solo release, What Is Love For. Even though songs about romantic disappointment and failure were nothing new for Del Amitri fans, the album was dark and introspective even by his standards. To the surprise of Currie and his record company (Ryko), however, the album found an audience, and even garnered some radio airplay. More than anything, it was good to hear Currie back behind the microphone once again, dryly sharing more of his clever (and often subtle) lyrical ways to cope with love lost. After the touring and promotional efforts were completed for What Is Love For, it was back to watching and waiting to find out what Currie had up his sleeve for the next album. The answer comes in the form of Currie’s brand new solo release, The Great War – an album that finds Currie venturing back into familiar territory, with a sound that will greatly please longtime fans of Del Amitri.
With a series of U.S. tour dates on deck for June, I recently had the chance to fire off a set of questions to Justin Currie, covering The Great War and a variety of additional topics. The results of the conversation prove that Currie’s sense of humor remains firmly in place (something that you’ll be very familiar with, if you’ve read any of his blog posts), and he gets points for working in a Heston Blumenthal reference.
The Great War is a thought provoking album title, one that could be applied as a mission statement regarding the ongoing efforts to make the world aware of who Justin Currie is. What’s the meaning behind the album title from your perspective?
I want there to be as many interpretations as possible and it is such an enormous phrase that the possibilities are endless. There’s a song on there, “The Fight To Be Human” which probably gets closest to nailing my take on it.
While I think that your first solo album might have caught a lot of people off guard, I think that this new album will be a nice surprise with its upbeat tone, particularly for Del Amitri fans.
Yeah, maybe. It still deliberately lacks what defines Del Amitri, though which is a tall guy in the corner with a ridiculous mustache, an over-active brain and guitar playing that makes me cry.
You and Iain certainly were/are a good match as a songwriting pair.
I wouldn’t write with anybody else really. We kind of instinctively understand where things are going when we co-write. That being said – not all of it works. We’ve thrown a lot of finished songs away over the years and believe me, they’re awful!
Mark Freegard helped out once again with production duties on the new album – who else do you have playing with you on the new disc?
Well, Jeff Beck couldn’t make it, sadly. The musicians are all from my “road band”. Jim McDermott (Drums), Nick Clark (Bass), Stuart Nisbet (Guitars) and Andy May (Keys). My US keys player, Peter Adams is on there as well.
Guitarist Mick Slaven, who played on Waking Hours, shows up on both What Is Love For and The Great War – he certainly co-wrote some great material with you on Waking Hours – how did you end up working with him again after all of these years?
I always want to work with Mick! He’s an inspiration and a joy to behold. He’s someone who, once you have heard him play in the same room as you, you will think about forever when you consider the perfect guitar band. Sometimes he actually levitates when he’s playing. You can see a little stripe of daylight spread from under the soles of his feet.
Obviously, What Is Love For was a very different album than anything you’d done with Del Amitri, but there are a lot of songs on this new album that easily could have fit under the Del Amitri banner. “A Man With Nothing To Do” is one of those songs that has that familiar sound, and it also makes for a great lead-off track on the album.
I kind of promised Ryko that I wouldn’t give them more of the same on the second record, although to be fair they’d have been cool with me making What Is Love For part two, I think. But I set out to prioritize more up-tempo songs in major keys – the exact opposite of WILF. I couldn’t foresee going back on the road with more slow songs and not making the audience really depressed. One has a duty to entertain after all.
Absolutely. How much input does Ryko have or inject regarding your albums? From your description, it seems like the Ryko deal has been a good fit for what you do as an artist.
Well, they really just leave me to it. They are there if I need their input or advice but there has never been a problem with what I deliver so it has worked fine.
I don’t know if it’s too soon to call an album “under-rated,” but I really loved What Is Love For. It wasn’t an immediate album for me the first time that I listened to it, but the more that I listened to it, I really grew to love it, particularly the run of songs starting with “Walking Through You,” all of the way to “Gold Dust.”
I take that as a compliment. Many friends have said similar things. Some things are candyfloss and some are mature cheese. I would imagine even Heston Blumenthal couldn’t combine the two.
One of the things that I read about this new album is that you spent quite a bit of time writing enough songs to get the balance that you wanted for the album, and it’s evident that you spent a good amount of time on that, because the sequencing of the album really flows well. You also stated that you don’t write as many up-tempo songs these days as you used to. From a songwriting standpoint, what’s different and responsible for the shift in the tone of the songs that you’re writing these days.
Self censorship! I’d write ballads exclusively if I thought I wouldn’t repeat myself. There were a number of very slow things that I rather liked that had to be jettisoned for the sake of The Great War not turning into self-indulgent slurry.
How many songs did you write/record for this new album?
I did raid the cupboard for some older ones to keep the youngsters on their toes but not a huge amount for me. Only about twenty.
Out of the new material on this album, I was really happy to see “As Long As You Don’t Come Back” make it on to this album, although it’s changed a bit from the original demo that I heard on your Myspace.
Yes. Peter Adams wanted to do that song on the road but thought the middle eight was a drag which I agreed with him about so I changed that and we cranked up the tempo a little. Hopefully it is a little less maudlin now.
Although I’d love to see a band tour for the U.S. dates, I did really enjoy the variety in the setlist during your acoustic tour for What Is Love For. You pulled out some really nice and unexpected tracks from your overall catalog. It was great hearing songs like “It Might As Well Be You” and “In The Frame” alongside the more common tracks.
Obviously there are a lot of things you can’t do with an acoustic duo but equally a lot of low-key things from the repertoire that while being great songs, wouldn’t sit well in a rock and roll show. It’s lovely to have the freedom to throw things in when there is just two of you.
During your time with Del Amitri, the group turned out an impressive amount of material as B-sides in addition to the regular albums. Similarly, from the amount of unreleased material that you post on your Myspace for fans to listen to, it seems like you’re always in a productive frame of mind. Outside of posting them for streaming on Myspace, does the current state of the industry allow you enough of a forum to release the amount of music that you want to get out to your fanbase?
I don’t consider myself remotely prolific. I am an extremely lazy man. The very thought of writing and recording a new song fills me with dread and terror. I tend to do these things in short bursts so I can get back to my couch/ television schedule as quickly as possible. I sit there watching football and worrying that I am wasting my life. Then someone scores and I am mercifully temporarily distracted.
After being in a band for so long, what led you to make a solo album?
The fact that there was little reason to continue Del Amitri and there were new songs I was determined to get out.
I can see that. What were some of the deciding factors in your mind that built up to that decision to walk away?
No one walked away. After Mercury (which after many sales is what A&M turned into) dropped us in the spring of 2002 we had a meeting and decided to take a break from Del Amitri. Neither Iain nor I wanted to go on and make another record that would inevitably play to an ever diminishing audience. Pretty quickly I decided (against all my instincts) to do a “solo” record and shortly after that Iain came up with an inspired idea for co-writing in a completely experimental way that we have been working on intermittently ever since!
What would you say is your favorite moment or album from the band’s history?
Selina’s, Sydney, Australia 1990; Barrowlands, Glasgow for the first time; getting booked for Top of the Pops for the first time; Chicago the first time (and most times after); Hanging around New York with Iain over the years; getting into the US top ten; Watching Junior Brown with the Dels and crew in Houston, TX, Swimming naked in the Sebel Townhouse rooftop swimming pool 1992.
I couldn’t pick an album. I think they’re all interesting and worthy but none of them are classics by any means.
Around the time that you were preparing What Is Love For for release, there was word that you also had an entire band album in the can recorded with Iain Harvie that you were trying to get label interest for. Whatever became of that material?
That is inaccurate. Iain and I have written an album’s worth of material in the intervening years but there is no band thing at all. We’re still working on it occasionally. It’s very good but we can’t see many fans of the Dels liking it. For that reason we’ll probably stick it out as Del Amitri just out of badness.