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ARTIST PROFILE | Del Amitri
Almost two decades on from their last album, Del Amitri easily remember the good old days, when a Glasgow indie band "who never really cut it as Orange Juice and Josef K copyists, which is kinda what we were" became, in effect, overnight successes.
Suddenly, after a still-born first album (1985's Del Amitri), with 1989's Waking Hours, hit single 'Nothing Ever Happens' propelled them to sharing a Top of the Pops stage with Phil Collins, then in the imperial phase of his solo career, newcomer Sinead O'Connor singing 'Nothing Compares 2 U,' and the premier of Public Enemy's 'Welcome to the Terrordome' video.
Two years later, Del Amitri were still regulars on the nation's favourite chart show. Promoting 1992 hit 'Always The Last to Know,' the band appeared on an episode alongside an En Vogue video ('My Lovin'), Shakespears Sister ('I Don't Care') and, performing smash US hit 'Jump,' adolescent rap duo Kriss Kross, they of the backwards-jeans.
"I remember hearing their manager shouting at someone from the BBC," says guitarist Iain Harvie, "complaining about the sound: 'Even that fucking Scottish rock band sound better than my guys!'"
Del Amitri also remember the other side of the good old days. That happens when being successful enough to bag a stadium support with one of the biggest bands in the world isn't quite enough success to insulate you from the indignity of a breakfast TV outside-broadcast from Blackpool and being upstaged by a dancing omelette.
"We did a gig with REM in Cardiff Arms Park, third on the bill with Belly and The Cranberries," begins singer/guitarist Justin Currie. "And REM were mingling round the catering area after and invited us to their aftershow. We're like: 'Oh yes! We're going to get to party with REM!'"
"Oh no -- we had to get on the bus at midnight, drive through the night to Blackpool, sit outside the beach on the tour bus, waiting on the 5.30am call-time, then got put in a Portakabin, ignored for three hours. What the fuck are we doing here? We could still be partying with REM!
"Then at three minutes to nine, Danni Minogue comes in and yells at us to get onstage! So we get up there -- as the credits are rolling -- and it's chaos. There's a Nolan Sister, all these kids waving inflatable toys, us miming, in front of a dancing chicken and egg -- I still don't know who came on first -- waving kitchen utensils. Then Frank Carson comes on just as we're about to down tools. He spots how pissed off I was, so starts dancing behind me, occasionally leaning into my ear going: 'You're a wanker! You're a wanker!'"
"It was a travesty," Harvie laughs ruefully. "But at least our tour manager enjoyed it -- he was at the side of the stage, pissing himself laughing."
Still, "the Dels" had the last laugh. In America the song they were promoting on TVam, 1995's 'Roll To Me,' hit Number 10 on the Billboard Hot 10. It became a soundtrack favourite (everything from Family Guy to one-boy-and-his-dolphin "abomination" Flipper) and US jukebox staple that resonates (and generates royalties) to this day.
Equally, selling six million copies of half-a-dozen studio albums between that mid-Eighties debut and 2002's Can You Do Me Good? does a great job of enabling you to, firstly, laugh about the cheap digs of Northern Irish comedians and, secondly, quit while you're ahead.
Which is exactly what Currie and Harvie, the consistent core of the band since 1982, did after that sixth album.
"Iain and I took a hiatus after 2002 because we'd been dropped by Mercury and we thought: 'Well, that's a bit of a milestone -- we've had major deals since our late teens,'" relates Currie. "So it felt like a good moment to take a bit of time off. And I just did anything that was offered -- a bit of jazz singing with a big band, a bit with a folk-orchestra..."
"Ha, I missed that one!" chips in Harvie. "I spent a time as a record producer. I did three or four albums with Rough Trade, then worked with a young band from Berwick-upon-Tweed, then tour-managed them a bit, then worked in studios. So I'd drifted off the other way, which I quite enjoyed. But then the bottom started falling out of the studio industry as well, as bands started recording themselves. Which just started to make me miss our band."
Currie similarly oscillated between feeling disgruntled and... gruntled?
"I did four solo albums," the frontman says, "and some touring, including one on my own which I absolutely hated. You can't look round at anyone and go: 'Well, this is weird.' And you're meant to be a raconteur when you do solo shows, and I can't do any of that. Then, after, you're standing in the dressing room on your own. There's no one to talk to! It's horrible. So, aye, I really missed the band, too."
In 2014 and again in 2018, Currie, Harvie and their band embarked on sell-out UK reunion tours. But by the time of the second run, the appeal of playing solely songs from the past began to pall slightly.
"It's great fun doing those gigs," says Currie, "but if there's not something current you're really happy with, you start to feel like a human jukebox. Which is great but you wouldn't want to do that too many times. You start to feel dead inside."
Heading into the 2018 tour, Harvie suggested they try their hand at some new songs. Currie had been writing solo songs, "but they're all dirges, which you can get away with solo," the singer admits cheerfully. But as it has been a long time since he'd written songs with the band in mind, he took himself off to a borrowed cottage on the Isle of Lewis and started writing songs that would suit a two-guitar set-up.
Down south, Harvie was writing, too. The pair realised that, without forcing it, they had created a bunch of songs that sounded "very Del Amitri."
By the time 2019 came around, those songs had turned into the core of a very Del Amitri album and a new deal with Cooking Vinyl. Then, the night before lockdown in March this year, recording of that album was completed.
Fatal Mistakes is their first collection of new songs in 18 years, it was recorded "pretty much live" in three quicksmart weeks with producer Dan Austin (Biffy Clyro, You Me At Seven), and it's the brilliant sound of a 35-years-young recording band settling into what they do best: melodic rock songs with lyrical bite, soulful comfort, heart-swelling uplift and the occasional just-the-right-side-of-gnarly guitar solo.
First out of the traps was the instantly hooky You Can't Go Back, performed on that 2018 tour, the opening track on the album and pegged as one of the lead singles for the album. It's a song about embracing reality -- ever pithily self-aware, Del Amitri are always the first to know if something sounds or feels wrong or crass.
"It's very open about the fact that we've moved on and it's not the same thing," observes Harvie, even as he's somehow managing to still rock the same luxurious locks as he did on the sleeve of Waking Hours, "and how the audience have moved along with us."
"And it works as a love song, too," adds Currie, equally still no slouch in the hair department. "I like lyrics that double-up like that."
The band's intent to record like a "proper five-piece rock band" -- by plugging in amps rather than booting up laptops -- is there to hear in the excellently and pithily titled Musicians and Beer. It's a proper driving rock tune, with crunchy riffs courtesy of Kris Dollimore and the jolting line: "At least Muddy Waters can't fuck with your kids."
"That was written on the piano, funnily enough," explains Currie. "But I had the title for a while, and I thought it would amuse all the musicians we know. And I like the idea that we have some purpose in the world: actually, you do need musicians and beer in your life -- especially this year!
"And those are both things that fundamentalist religious people hate. I come from a family, on my dad's side, of fundamentalist Christians who don't allow organs in church, or harmony, because that's decadent. And there are obviously still strains of that in the world."
"It's our anti-Caliphate song," adds Harvie, "although we don't want an ISIS fatwa... It could help the publicity, mind."
In counterpoint is the skeletal, aching Lonely, a song that echoes with emptiness and is flecked with CSNY-style harmonies.
"Not the kind of thing we've done before," says Harvie. "I wrote that not thinking it would work -- it's the most fragile way you could write a song, just playing chords on the acoustic guitar as quietly as possible. And that created space for the lyrics."
Then there's It's Feelings, another big tune that's classic Del Amitri, with Currie's soulful tap-room rasp reverberating down the years.
"Iain wrote that music," says the singer, "it was the last thing we did, and I just thought it felt very sunny, so I just wrote some really sweet lyrics. It has a wee bit of that Cure, New Order-y vibe -- it drives along in a Nineties alternative radio lane. And that lightness really balanced out the darkness elsewhere in the album."
Cue the mordant, Neil Young-ish I'm So Scared of Dying. "For the mix we gave Dan references like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," says Currie, "which are quite brittle, quite toppy records. You don't hear that so often anymore because in a digital world it's easy to make things sound warm and comfortable. We wanted this to be spiky."
And cue, too, the what-a-state-of-the-nation lament Close Your Eyes and Think of England. A classic Dels ballad, the creative spark was lit for Currie during a solo tour of Brexit Britain as he pondered the state of English nationalism ("and also, 'Scotland' didn't scan"). There's similar lyrical ambition in the near-eight-minute, two-chord wonder that is album closer Nation of Caners. Harvie remembers with a chuckle Currie coming into the studio in Warwickshire with "five pages of closely-written lyrics."
"I just fancied having a long, quite political song," shrugs the lyricist, "and I just wanted to write about the madness we're living in right now."
"And once we learnt to play it, we just did it as a groove -- and, again, we don't really do groove-based things," observes Harvie. "It was heading towards The Fall or Can. And we played it completely live, all eight minutes of it. I think that's about take five."
Now that they're back, Del Amitri aren't rushing -- they've waited 18 years, after all. Songs from Fatal Mistakes will be rolled out over the coming months and into 2021, ahead of (they hope) a full UK tour.
What does it mean for a band to come back after so long away? It means embracing your past to create a new sound for a fresh tomorrow.
"Once I'd got my head round the idea of not sounding like the band we were then, I was much less paranoid!" admits Currie with a laugh. "You're never gonna recreate that energy of when you're 20. So you have to do what we're doing now."
That, Iain Harvie elaborates, means "shorter songs, with no big rambling guitar solos. We don't need that big bollocks swagger that you felt you had to pull out when you were on the Rolling Stones' stage at Wembley, or whatever other stupid things you ended up doing. It's just us, and the songs, all of it played by all five of us -- no guest players or session guys. We've never done that before!" he marvels. "So it's a clean sheet, a new album, from a new band. It felt really free to make it."
"You know, when we made Waking Hours," reflects Justin Currie by way of conclusion, "we knew there was no one else at the time who was doing that: a classic rock-pop record, very song-based, but with guitar solos and proper melodic performances. And it occurred to us a couple of years ago that, again, in Britain there's a space for this. No band of any generation are doing this. So this feels like the right time."
Right time, right place, right band: Del Amitri are back and ready to rock with Fatal Mistakes. Although if you want to book them for a breakfast TV slot, they may have some questions.READ MORE »