By virtue of the splendid and strange life that I lead, I've been lucky enough to speak with most of the singer-songwriters whose music I love. One glaring exception is John Lennon, who was killed before I started conversing with great musicians for a living. Recently, I got the chance to finally meet one of my favorite artists who I've somehow missed over the years. Interestingly, Justin Currie -- the Scottish singer-songwriter best known as the longtime front man of the perennially undervalued band Del Amitri -- has always reminded me just a little bit of John Lennon, as well as another of my favorite writers named John -- John Updike. Read on to find out why the hell I would say such a thing.
And so it was during a recent family vacation in Boston, I selfishly dragged my wife and kids out of the single greatest hotel in the world, the Mandarin Oriental Boston, just so that I could grab a few minutes to meet Currie during his soundcheck for a gig later that night at Boston's Paradise Rock Club while on tour to promote his excellent new album entitled The Great War.
When we got to the venue, we first ran into Currie's opening act for the night, a gifted young singer-songwriter originally from Oklahoma named Graham Colton. It turned out that Colton, like me, has long been a massive fan of Justin Currie's music. Indeed, Colton had willingly left his honeymoon early to have the honor of opening up for Currie, one of his own true musical heroes. Finally, the man himself arrived. Here then is my brief but meaningful conversation with Currie about The Great War and other topics:
Justin, I've loved your music since I was in college, but my own theory is that you are consistently undervalued and misunderstood. For instance, even the name Del Amitri always sounded less like a great Scottish rock band and more like some groovy Spanish surf club.
Funnily enough that was the sort of idea behind the name. We deliberately chose a really obscure name that wouldn't in any way point towards what we really were -- which was a post-punk white Scottish band heavily influenced by the Postcard Records acts of the time. So if we'd called ourselves the Wildflowers or the Kingfishers that would have been more painfully obvious. All the bands around at the time had incredibly pretentious names like Teutonic Veneer and Aztec Camera, so our name was a kind of bad reaction against that. We originally wanted to call ourselves something like Dimitri Papadopoulos so that we'd sound like an obscure Southern European night club singer. The only problem with calling ourselves Del Amitri is that . . . it's a terrible name. It doesn't give anyone a clue and it's not even memorable.
Then again, The Beatles is arguably not a great name either, and I hear they did pretty well for themselves.
True, that pun is particularly poor. Sure, it worked out pretty well for them, but it possibly would have been better as just the Beetles. And actually come to think if it, the Quarryman may have been a better name.
Justin Currie, on the other hand, is pretty nice ring to it.
Actually, I have an issue with my name too. Seeing my two names together always makes me think of being in school, or filling out a passport form or something else unpleasant. So when I see my name on a marquee somewhere, I don't get an ego rush from it at all -- only a vague sense that I'm in some sort of trouble. I thought of changing my name, but I suppose I'm a little too late for that.
I really love your latest solo album "The Great War." After the very different musical texture of your previous album from 2007, "What Is Love For," this latest record seems much closer to what Del Amitri fans have come to expect from you.
Yes, it should be closer to what Del Amitri is because I didn't do what I did on my first solo album and deliberately censor absolutely anything that sounded vaguely like the band. But this time around I felt that I didn't want to make another album of piano ballads, so inevitably The Great War sounds more like the band.
Another misconception about you as the result of the considerable commercial success of Del Amitri's "Roll To Me" is that you are a relatively sunny pop artist. Yet part of what made both Graham Colton and I love your work were the darker romantic themes you've explored so well, especially on an album like Del Amitri's 1992 effort "Change Everything."
You're right. Most of the Del Amitri singles that did okay were pretty upbeat songs like "Roll To Me," "Kiss This Thing Goodbye" and even "Here and Now." But the truth is that I'm not remotely a sunny artist. Songwriting is quite a lonely and introspective pastime and inevitably most of the things that you write are quite reflective or at least investigative.
As a writer, you've always reminded me of two all-time greats Johns who I also admire -- John Lennon and John Updike. The former John for more obvious musical reasons, the later John because, like him, you seem to write exceedingly well about bad male psychosexual behavior.
I have always been really interested in male unreliability, and that sort of dubious nature of men's motives. I'm fascinated by that subject, partly because I have the arrogance and confidence to talk about those things and sing about them without being embarrassed by it. Which I think puts me closer to those male and female stand up comedians who are very comfortable exposing the negative sides of themselves because they trust others will relate to that too. I generally don't write about women being unreliable, but more about men just not understanding women or not giving them what they want. Sometimes I write from a downright nasty perspective, and often it makes the audience laugh if I sing two or three of my misogyny tunes in a row.
Why do you think you think you write so well about this subject?
It may just be the function of being raised by a feminist mom and two sisters and getting a hard time from them. So I suppose I found it very liberating leaving home and having my own crazy relationships. I've realized it's all good and well being a male feminist until you get involved in the nitty gritty of life -- when there are things that you do and things that you feel that do not in any way fit in with a feminist ideal.
How's that impacted your life?
In my own personal life, music will always be more important to me than anything else, and I always say that upfront: "You're going to be #2, and I'm not going to lie about that." And a lot of the time, when you do what I do, you're not really all there. You're half there living your life, and half thinking about how to write about it.
There's also the fascinating, dangerous pathology that the great Randy Newman's spoken about -- causing problems in your life so you can write about them.
Everybody does it. I denied for years that I did it, and now I've realized that sometimes subconsciously, but also probably consciously too, I'll create trouble to write about it. I sort of mention this in one of the songs on The Great War called "The Way That It Falls." It reminds me of a great quote from a woman novelist I heard years ago. She said that most prose writers have to "manufacture their own loneliness."
One of the many standout songs on "The Great War" is "A Man With Nothing To Do." But with the current state of the music business, it seems like you probably have even more to do these days as an artist. For instance, recently, you've been doing some dates with a band, some dates solo, a number of TV appearances like the one you just did the other night with your fellow Scotsman Craig Ferguson the other night. So is there actually quite a lot for a man like you to do these days?
Well, there are more things to do these days that are not my job -- or at least things that were not in the job description when I formed a band in school back in Glasgow. Okay, we made some posters then, and we got our own gigs, which I enjoyed. But we didn't have to run a fan club or spend much time in any kind of office situation. Most musicians today spend the majority of their time in front of a computer dealing with the narrowcast media.
What's that like for a musician?
On some levels, this is wonderful because bands can now find an audience directly and circumvent the major corporations. But on the other hand, a lot of what you have to do today has nothing to do with the music. You're developing a relationship with your audience that is outside of the music and personal, sometimes becomes very personal with people writing about their domestic situations. Personally, I kind of like the fourth wall, not because I'm arrogant or a snob, but because I don't really want to meet my own heroes on that level. I kind of like some mystery, and there's no mystery today. Fans on Facebook or MySpace sort of want to track what you're doing every moment. I really just do it because I'm told to do it, but I find the social network side of what I do I find to be quite hard work and I'm not good at it. Playing music I love -- I totally subscribe to the Keith Richards view that the only peace you get is when you're onstage. Everything else is domestic irritation -- the French door doesn't shut and the washing machine isn't working. But you get onstage and it's quite blissful because you are in charge of your own destiny, and that's exciting and scary in a good way.
Finally, you did Craig Ferguson's show the other night. Did you two know each other when he was a musician in Scotland too?
No, Craig's band the Dreamboys were just a bit ahead of my time. He's a few years older than me, but even that's a big gap in terms of punk rock. Craig was an early adopter of punk; I caught up a little later, but all my friends really rated the Dreamboys. It was great to see him and I'm quite proud of him as a Scott who's made a big success in America -- not an easy thing to do.