Justin Currie talks about opening for the Stones, playing for local politicians and why he dreads playing their biggest hit
Del Amitri have been round the block a few times now. It’s 33 years since Justin Currie’s merry band of Glaswegians struck gold with maybe the best nihilistic acoustic ballad of all time, ‘Nothing Ever Happens’, and 27 since they bucked the miserable alt rock boom with their irrepressibly perky ‘Roll To Me’. It’s been a long enough career for Currie that he enjoys a position as elder statesman and charming curmudgeon of Scottish rock, looking back over two Platinum and two Gold albums and five Top 20 singles.
Currie speaks to us from his stylish-looking living room in Glasgow. “It’s a good angle,” he says when I compliment his interior decorating. “If I pointed the camera down, you’d see the stains on the carpet from when it was a bit of a party house.” If that’s the case, time has been much kinder to Currie than his carpet. He doesn’t look like a man who has to go back to 1982 to remember his band’s first gig or a decade later for his last trip to Orkney, the band’s destination on the Music Venue Trust’s Revive Live tour.
I saw you guys back in 1995 in Dublin opening for Bon Jovi. I won tickets from a 7-Up bottle to go to that gig and came away a huge fan of Del Amitri.
You must have been about five. We hardly ever did big gigs like that. I mean, festivals weren’t really such a thing and so we didn’t really do very many big gigs where we were way down the bill, but for some weird reason we got a bunch of Bon Jovi gigs. I think the first gig we did with them was in a racing circuit in Hamburg and we were so low down the bill that I noticed just as we were leaving the stage that it wasn’t even midday yet. For the first and only time in our sad story, I got to say thank you and good morning.
Was there anything you enjoyed about playing stadiums?
Being that far down the bill, there’s just no pressure. It’s kind of amusing. I don’t think we got paid very much in those days, but you just sort of did it to try and maybe win over a few fans at a time. We did a Rolling Stones gig in Sheffield, which was totally brilliant, because the Rolling Stones famously treat the support bands like they’re just a member of their touring party. If you’re on the bill, you’re inside the tent. They invite you into the dressing room… well, it’s more of a sort of dressing town. They got us a police escort of motorcycle guys to the gig. There was no obvious reason. It’s just what they do.
Would you still rather just be back in front of your own fans, the people who have paid to come and see Del Amitri?
The good thing about what we did in the 90s was, in America, we would play nightclubs and bars and the odd theatre. Whereas, in the UK, we were a few steps above that doing quite big theatres. But then we also got to do those big gigs, as I say, way down the bill. So, we got to experience each echelon of that rock circuit without any of it becoming really tiresome.
Do you have clear memories of the early days? Do you remember Del Amitri’s first gig?
The first gig I did with Del Amitri was when I was still at school, back before Ian [Harvie, the band’s long-standing guitarist] joined. Our drummer booked the gig, and I think he just said it was a disco. And then the night before the gig, we discovered it was a benefit for the Liberal Party, which was just so f***ing uncool. But that was quite a brilliant first gig to do because there was about 200 people there. And, for some weird reason, they danced. Maybe they thought that was what they were supposed to do. And early Del Amitri was not something you could dance to. It was quite angular and odd. I remember that first gig and just looking at a sea of nodding heads. It was quite inspiring.
Was there a point then where you started to see things click and thought, hang on, something might be happening here?
Well, not for years because the audiences that we played to were mostly friends. It wasn’t until after we put out our first album that we picked up some kind of John Peel-listener-type fans, but not many. But the first time I noticed it in Glasgow was probably 1986 or 1987. We did a gig at a place called the Tron Theatre and we filled it. And that was really weird, because that held about 350 people and we had no idea why we’d filled it. It’s not like we’d been on the radio, or certainly on the TV. The audience had just built a wee bit and become a thing where 350 people turned up, and that was that was extraordinary. But that took the best part of five years.
Which songs do you most look forward to playing now?
Sometimes it’s just the ones that are easier to play that you look forward to. We always really dread playing ‘Roll To Me’, because it’s so fast and complicated. You just want to get out of the way. I think you always enjoy the new songs more because you’re still trying to inhabit them. Whereas the stuff that you’ve played for decades, it’s just muscle memory.
I want to ask you about the venue that you’re playing up in Kirkwall, The Sound Archive. It looks like a fairly small place in an old library. Why did you pick that one?
We were offered a few different things and we just went for Orkney because we fancied a trip to Orkney. We’ve not been since 1992. In 2014, when we did reunion gigs, and we were playing some quite big places, like the Hydro and stuff, we did some warm-up gigs and we did a little pub in Cork. That was really surreal, but really enjoyable. So I’m not frightened about doing this at all. In fact, I’m quite looking forward to it.
Is it a fun challenge to throw yourself into a different kind of venue and see what comes out of it?
Yeah. Over the years, I’ve done solo stuff and I did a few gigs in America like that, where you think: “This is not a venue, this is a foyer.” And they’re always fun, because they’re difficult and you’ve got to make the best of them. And there are levels of professionalism, where you walk into the venue and you go, “Look, these guys are just a charity or something,” so you completely readjust your expectations. And that can be quite fun as well.
How’s it been for you going back to live after lockdown? Does muscle memory just take over again or have you found it an adjustment?
Yeah, I felt extremely rusty. And I didn’t feel that rehearsing was really helping particularly. It wasn’t until we could get five or six gigs under our belt that I felt like I was feeling my way back into it. And we were extremely nervous. The first gig back was the Edinburgh Festival at Queens Hall where we did three nights of kind of acoustic B-sides and rarities. That was really tough. Really tough because we really felt so rusty that made us super nervous. So the first night, we just went through everything at 100 miles an hour, which was bonkers. We came offstage like 20 minutes early, because we played everything so fast.
Is there any venue or any place in particular that you particularly look forward to on tour?
I mean, obviously Barrowlands. I don’t think we’ve ever been particularly disappointed playing Barrowlands, although, in some ways, all Barrowlands shows are kind of the same, which is quite odd. You always get that same noise when you walk on stage, regardless of it being a Monday night or a Saturday or Christmas or summer.
Your North America tour has venues that are renowned even on this side of the world, like the Douglas Fir in Portland and the Horseshoe in Toronto. Is there a specific vibe to these places?
I’ve done the Douglas Fir solo and I found it so despicably trendy, it made me want to vomit. I stayed in the hotel attached to it and the door to your bedroom is a blackboard so everyone writes witty graffiti on it. And there were as an illuminous condom in the drawer. Oh p*** off. That achingly hip Portland s***. For an old curmudgeon like me, it’s amusing but irritating as s***. I remember it’s a good venue and I do like Portland, despite all the hipster b***ocks.
Del Amitri play The Sound Archive in Kirkwall on 19 March and have a short run of UK shows lined-up for June, including three nights at Barrowlands. Tickets are available here.