Del Amitri's Justin Currie has opened up about the excitement and terror of releasing new music for the first time in almost two decades, as the band prepare to return with a new album.
As gaps between records go, 19 years is a mere blink of the eye compared to four decade delayers like Shirley Collins or Shuggie Otis. Yet Del Amitri’s ‘time out’ has overlapped with a period of such change within the music industry that it feels like they have been away for several lifetimes. When their sixth album, Can You Do Me Good?, hit the racks in April 2002 the iPod was a mere six months old and the foundation of Spotify was exactly four years in the future.
Fortunately, another big industry development in the intervening years has been the growth of the live sector, so Del Amitri’s creative powerhouse, Justin Currie and Iain Harvie, were eventually recalled from solo albums and production work respectively, to reunite on stage in 2014. Those shows put wheels in motion for a new album – not that the band (completed by keyboard player Andy Alston, drummer Ashley Soan and guitarist Kris Dollimore) initially planned to do that, hence the even bigger gap between records.
However, with seventh studio album Fatal Mistakes out on May 14, Del Amitri are not aiming to turn back the clock and instead are embracing change. For the first time since they were teenagers on Glasgow’s fertile art rock scene, Del Amitri are no longer signed to a major label having linked-up with Cooking Vinyl for the release of their seventh LP.
"I was always a fan of Justin Currie’s songwriting, so when we heard the new songs from the Fatal Mistakes album last year, we jumped at the opportunity to work with them,” Cooking Vinyl MD Rob Collins tells Music Week. “It’s the original line-up and the songs are just classic Del Amitri. We’re really confident we can find a proper place for the band after their 20 year hiatus! It’s easy to forget the band enjoyed hits everywhere – their biggest streaming market is still the US – so we feel we can properly roll this out worldwide over the next 18 months."
We’re really confident we can find a proper place for the band after 20 years!
Rob Collins, Cooking Vinyl
Further evolution for the band has also come with long-standing manager John Reid retiring and handing over the reins to Martin Hall and legendary press man Andy Prevezer – the latter’s new role will probably only surprise his industry colleagues by the fact it hasn’t come sooner.
“I’d known the band from A&M in the ’90s, had been their PR and had stayed in touch with Justin and Iain ever since,” says Prevezer, whose first managerial decision has been to, wisely, take on the band’s press too. “When I heard they’d made their first record in 20 years and that their brilliant long-time manager John Reid was retiring, I jumped at the chance to get involved. I spoke to Martin, he loved the idea. The bottom line is that Justin is one of the UK’s finest songwriters – he always was – and once we heard the new songs it was done. This album is a two year project. The rollout plan takes in possible UK dates this year, Europe next spring and then a US run next summer. And then who knows? Lockdown has given them a chance to write half the next record too, so we’re in a good place right now. It’s exciting!”
Here, frontman/bassist Justin Currie talks to Music Week about making sense of all this change and why, after 19 years and three lockdowns, Del Amitri have decided to embrace a brave new world...
Del Amitri missed a very eventful couple of decades within the music industry, have you had to make a big readjustment?
“We try to translate everything into what that format would have been in the old days because we are dinosaurs [laughs]. For example, Cooking Vinyl asked us to do a bonus CD with extra tracks, what the fuck is that? Then we realised, ‘That’s just b-sides.’ It is ’90s formatting updated to the streaming era, because every time we put singles out on A&M you needed at least four new songs because there was a 10-inch, a cassette, two CD formats… So you can usually translate it into what you did before. The thing I do like about streaming is that although it’s hype-able and playlist-driven – so it is a gatekeeper of sorts – you and your record company can pick a single now but four years later you can go back and see that a track nobody ever thought of as being a single has got 20 times the listens of anything else. That democratic side of streaming is quite liberating. It’s totally changed the way you sequence records. In the early days, we did a lot of what used to be called ‘front loading’, making sure the first three tracks sounded like singles, to hook the audience. Now you can sequence things purely musically – although we still think of ‘side one’ and ‘side two’ we’re not quite as paranoid about it as we used to be. You can put two ballads on side one now, you would never have thought of doing that in the ’90s!”
Fatal Mistakes is the direct result of Del Amitri reforming and playing live again, but new music was not your original motivation for getting the band back together, was it?
“When we reconvened in 2014 Iain and I had a very brief conversation about new material and we just thought: ‘No, that's not the point of this.’ For want of a better word, it was a nostalgia fest. But then when we toured it again in 2018, we thought: 'It's fine being a human jukebox of your own material, but that's not why we got into this in the first place.’ So we started doing one new song, and as soon as we did that we thought: ‘Should we try to make an album?’ I was quite against that, to begin with. I’m quite fond of a lot of what Del Amitri did – I probably don’t have much perspective on it – but I still listen to the albums occasionally and I feel good about it. Considering how inexperienced we were, there was a decent amount of energy and effort that's gone into those recordings. I didn't think that was re-creatable. But Iain said, ‘let's just try’ and once we started, I realised, so as long as you're not trying to be young, it's OK. But it's tricky to get your head around, especially after that long gap. You’ve missed the intervening years where you slow down and subtly change, while the audience gets old with you. So it would have been dangerous to do exactly what we did before. You just don't have the energy or the same sort of febrile anxiety that goes into making records that you do when you're young. So there was a lot of writing involved. We wrote about 45,50 songs before we thought we had the tracks that sound like where we would have arrived at if we’d still been making albums all along. If that makes any sense…”
So having been away for nearly 20 years, how did it feel having to wait to release it because of the lockdown?
“The album was finished the day before the lockdown. We finished on the Saturday night, drove home on the Sunday and it was locked down on the Monday. So it would have come out autumn last year, so it’s not gone back too much which is good considering the situation.”
It’s called Fatal Mistakes, possibly a prescient title…
“It’s funny because we had a Zoom call with Cooking Vinyl after we signed, and they sort of put me on the spot and said: ‘What's the album called?’ So I said Fatal Mistakes and they'll be looked at ashen face. I think they thought, ‘Oh, God, that's a bit doom and gloom for these times’ but that isn’t just where it came from. Album titles have to have at least three different ways of being interpreted to work, otherwise they pin a record down to one shade or colour. So I think they were a bit horrified, but after a few months they were fine. I might be wrong about that, but nobody went, ‘Great title!’” [Laughs].
Virtual meetings aside, how does it feel to now be an indie band at this stage in your career?
“Well, this was the first record we’ve made where we're spending our own money, not record company advanced money, that was quite interesting. That gave us a bit of freedom, but also gave us a bit of, ‘Shit, we better get this right, because we don't have any more money.’”
What made you take that route?
“When we got dropped by Universal in 2002 we took a couple of months off, then Iain, I and our managed, John Reid, had a meeting to decide what we were going to do next. One alternative was to sign to a decent sized indie label, scale everything down, expect not to sell as many records but keep making an album every year-and-a-half, which I was quite into. Then Iain said, ‘We're looking at the Law of Diminishing Returns here and it could be pretty depressing.’ So we just decided to take six months off instead. In that intervening periods the phone did not ring! Nobody wanted Del Amitri to do anything. So we thought, ‘Right, let's just wait until the fucking phone rings.’ And it took 10 years until promoters started asking if we’d consider doing Hammersmith Odeon? So we just left it left alone because we didn't want to do it for the sake of it. We wanted there to be some vague demand for it… And that took 12 years, really.”
Nobody wanted Del Amitri to do anything, so we waited until they did
Then record companies started ringing?
“We went to a couple of majors, or major offshoots, and got quite far in looking at those deals. Then they would get scared because they did some quick calculations and realised, ‘if we give these guys X amount of money, we're not going to see it back for three years or something.’ So Cooking Vinyl was ideal. If you look at their roster, they've kept alive the recording lives of a lot of artists who wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. They seemed pretty ideal for old bastards like us who still want to release new material. They’re great and lovely people, although we haven’t met many of them face to face yet. A lot of Zoom calls!”
You also have new management too...
“John, who had been our manager for something like 30 years, had a bit of ill health and was talking about retiring. So when we embarked on this album, he thought it was a good time to step down. Very kindly set us out a kind of roadmap for where we should go looking for managers. We knew Andy really well from the A&M days – he was a very young head of press who we always got on with like a house on fire – and as soon we met Martin it seemed like an ideal fit. And then they set up all these great plans for touring, the poor bastards, and then it all went… Fuck!” [Laughs].
After the wait, the album is out in May. Using your translating it back to the ’90s method, how have you been setting up for the release?
“I'm still really green as to how all streaming works, but the adults in the room seem to know what they're doing. So we're just trying to supply them with the kind of material that they think will help. It was written into the Cooking Vinyl contract that they got acoustic versions of all the album tracks, which I had a big issue with when we signed the deal. Then Rob explained to me why this stuff is just really handy for getting on playlists, so we’re trying our best [laughs]. Actually, it fits into the old format too. All we did on American radio in the ’90s was get up at fucking stupid o'clock in the morning, go into a show with two acoustic guitars and an accordion and play the single. We did that for years, so this seems the modern equivalent.”
Is it exciting trying to connect with an audience again?
“It's exciting but it is also quite terrifying because there could be nobody there. It seems like you need to do a lot of work on social media, and can you teach old dogs like us new tricks? We're trying to figure out how to find the right people who might listen to us. But a lot of people are trying to figure that out during lockdown too. How do you present a live performance, when there are no gigs? We're just trying to find a way of doing it so it feels like us, and not some kind of par-for-the-course webcast thing. So I've got sort of zero expectations but I'm also quite hopeful because, fuck it, I think we've made a great record.”
By Paul Stokes