Talking Nostalgia, Brexit and Bob Dylan with frontman Justin Currie as the U.K. alt-pop vets release their first new album in 19 years
“You can’t go back” might be the first lyrics that burst forth from Fatal Mistakes, Del Amitri’s first album of new music in 19 years, but the familiar jangle and crafted alt-pop of the thirteen tracks here belie that statement.
Which isn’t to say that it’s stale or rote – on the contrary, bassist/singer Justin Currie and guitarist Iain Harvie (always the axis around which the band has coalesced) have created a nuanced and dare I say “adult” record, full of the relentless melodicism and clever wordplay that has marked the best of their material while also pushing the envelope (see seven-minute album closer “Nation of Caners”, a tumbling of phrases and internal rhymes that would make Dylan or Costello nod their approval). The specter of age and the question of relevancy hang over these songs like a shroud and the band and the band tears at it with some of the most spirited performances of their career. Currie was kind enough to check in from his native Scotland to chat about the genesis of Del Amitri’s reformation, how the album came together right before the world shut down, and the enduring struggle that Brexit has highlighted in the U.K.
Fatal Mistakes is the culmination of a lengthy reunion process. Tell me how you and Iain reconnected, and at what point did you realize that you had an album in the making?
We didn’t have to reconnect, Iain and I spent much of the early years of the Dels’ hiatus writing songs together for a more technology driven project that never saw the light of day. Iain helped me immensely with my first solo album and continued to give me good advice as I made a further three. The crucial time was around 2013 when some enticing offers came in for Del Amitri live shows. Although it might have been a foregone conclusion that we’d reform we did have several long discussions about the wisdom of reuniting as a band after 13 years. So we agreed to a three week UK tour in 2014, very unsure if it was going to work – or even be enjoyable. We decided to eschew any new material. In the end it was the most relaxed we’ve ever been on the road. No pressure, single rooms, short drives – luxury! After the success of that tour it became obvious that we should write new material for the band before we considered other gigs.
VIDEO: Del Amitri “You Can’t Go Back”
Several of these songs, including the delightful “comeback” single “You Can’t Go Back”, have been played live in recent years. Was the record mostly written and recorded before the world locked down? I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but a song like “Musicians and Beer” seems to address some of the anxiety of losing the normality of day-to-day life.
We finished the writing around December ’19, rehearsed for a week before Christmas and went into the studio for three weeks from the start of March ‘20. Recording was completed a day before the national lockdown in the UK. The only song previously aired (on the 2018 tour) was “You Can’t Go Back”, though I did do “Close Your Eyes And Think Of England” at a solo gig at a folk club in Kirkcaldy. Any resonances with the circus of death are entirely fortuitous.
Speaking of the pandemic, did it impact you artistically? Several artists I’ve spoken to have said that they felt kind of paralyzed by it while others found themselves unexpectedly prolific.
Well, as soon as I wrote a song about the COVID-19 enforced isolation, I realized all such songs are redundant. If what you’re writing about describes the conditions of every other human on the planet you might as well be singing about urination or eating or sleep. You can’t find a personal angle to express the universal. Everything you’re going through is universal. So I wrote a few things about unrelated matters to purge myself of the lockdown blues trap. Then listened to a lot of old vinyl and read a bunch of books that have been lying around my bed for about ten years. So, no, I wouldn’t say I’ve been remotely creative. To be honest, it’s usually the prospect of a show that spurs me into any sort of action. No shows, no songs. So it was more paralysis than productivity. Most of the time I was either terrified or fascinated. Or drunk.
More than the other albums in the band’s oeuvre, this one seems to grapple with dealing with the passing of time and wanting to stick around. Are you a nostalgic person by nature?
I kind of fear nostalgia and tend to avoid indulging it. I’ve never been back to an old school, an old house, or at least when I have done so accidentally I feel no sense of the past welling up. I’m not haunted by the past nor do I wish to return there. I don’t find music nostalgic and never understand people who do. Much of the stuff I listened to as a teenager either sounds dreadful now or as brilliant as when I first heard it. None of it “takes me back” to some formative era at all. But the passing of time and its consequences and perspectives is often all you’ve got as an ageing songwriter. Dylan was writing some right old shit in the ‘80s until he started addressing his and his generation’s mortality with Time Out Of Mind in 1997. That record was an enormous influence on us. It’s so tender, so angry and so funny. So records like that give you options as you approach your dotage. You see that there might be other shades with which to sketch a song. Out goes sex, betrayal, falling in love and getting trashed — in comes sarcasm, contempt, and loss. Longevity is overrated and nostalgia is just masturbation. You can sing about that!
Do you approach writing for the band different than you do for your own solo endeavors?
Yes. You have the musicians in your group in mind as you write and you leave gaps for them to fill. You try not to overdo the chord count (never easy) and maintain an idea of the collective “we” in your mind. I bet there are far more uses of the words “we” and “us” on Del Amitri records than on the solo albums. They’re just “I” and “me”. There’s a format – two guitars, bass, drums and piano/organ you write to. With solo things you just write from the heart and worry about how it’ll sound later. The vast bulk of those songs are so maudlin and dreary you’d NEVER take them to the group. They fill up tapes like boring confessions.
VIDEO: Del Amitri “Close Your Eyes and Think of England”
The U.K. has recently (or perhaps not so recently) experienced similar shifts towards nationalism and stupidity as here in the United States. Songs like “Nation of Caners” and “Close Your Eyes And Think Of England” are sociopolitical in a way that you haven’t explored with the band since probably “Nothing Ever Happens”. It seems like it would almost be necessary to write about that now.
Well, Brexit was two things. It was an honest attempt to rebel against the democratic deficit at the heart of the European Union. A fuck you to a superstate whose social democratic ideals were often sacrificed on the altar of economic liberalism and financial gangsterism. But it was also driven by a cabal of right-wing capitalists utilizing extreme xenophobia and outright racism to win a false argument. It has been a hideous time in British society and a reminder that nationalism is always a disguise for hatred of the other while genuine internationalism remains a pipe-dream for those of us on the left. Instead of reforming the EU we have driven a lance through the heart of British social solidarity. Everything is black and white. In or out. You’re either with us or against us. The only us that matters is all of us and all of us need the same things: freedom of expression and freedom from oppression including the oppression of poverty. Including relative poverty. I always think of Dylan’s, “everybody’s shouting which side are you on?” from the peerless “Desolation Row.” The planet is in an ecological existential crisis and leaders everywhere are whipping up hysteria in an orgy of 1930s style power grabbing. Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s you never believed this kind of shit would be going on in the 21st century. We thought we’d have eradicated global poverty and be living in a classless society by now. Instead we’ve reverted to type. The fact that a universal factor like the pandemic hasn’t galvanized international socialism is depressing and horrifying.
Thirty years ago you were recording Change Everything, the album that began to break you in the U.S. What do you remember about that era?
Change Everything just kept our heads above water after Waking Hours got on to radio in the UK, Australia, and pockets of the U.S., especially Chicago. Twisted was the album that nearly crossed over internationally. But it never quite happened, which might have been a good thing. We hated arenas and thought stadium gigs were a bit of a joke. So we remained in clubs, dancehalls and theatres while garnering a lot of airplay. The airplay paid the bills, the gigs just covered themselves. It was kind of ideal. We didn’t go mad and we weren’t living in penury. At no point did any of us have a tantrum about the quality of the golf cart ferrying us from the dressing room to the stage in some faceless enormodome.
What’s next for the band? Is Del Amitri going to be an ongoing concern for you or do you have plans for additional solo records? And on a personal note, any chance of a second album by The Uncle Devil Show (Currie’s pseudonymous post-Dels act with Scottish musicians with Kevin and Jim McDermott)?
We’d like it to be an ongoing concern but after COVID, the economics of music making have changed yet again. We will see if it’s going to be possible. We’d rather work more frequently and charge much lower ticket prices but climate concerns might make that untenable. Nobody knows where this is going. As for Uncle Devil show, I know the name but little else. Are they from New Mexico?