One of Scotland’s most successful bands, Del Amitri enjoyed a string of his in the 80s and 90s, including Always The Last To Know, Nothing Ever Happens and Driving With The Brakes On. They called time in 2002 but, after two successful reunion tours, the rockers’ comeback album Fatal Mistakes flew into the Top Five in May.
Singer/bassist Justin Currie and guitarist Iain Harvie reveal to John Earls the fraught ways of making an album in lockdown, the difficulties of writing love songs and why they’re enjoying life more second time around.
For an album fans had waited nearly 20 years for, Del Amitri’s comeback record very nearly didn’t get finished. The band were determined to record Fatal Mistakes – their first album since Can You Do Me Good? in 2002 – by playing together in the studio. But album sessions in the Scottish countryside began three weeks before lockdown in March 2020, and were only finished the day before Boris Johnson’s announcement.
Singer/bassist Justin Currie recalls: “We were in a nice bubble. We were back making music, in a lovely studio in the countryside surrounded by vast rolling hills. We’d only watch the news every couple of days, so that we didn’t get too freaked out by what was happening around us. But, every time I went into the local village, something else was missing from the shelves. First was toilet roll, then pasta and on the final day of recording there was basically nothing. I thought: ‘What the hell is going on?’”
The band – also featuring guitarists Iain Harvie and Kris Dollimore, drummer Ash Soan and keyboardist Andy Alston – had been determined to make Fatal Mistakes quickly, even before news of the pandemic emerged. Iain explains: “There are advantages that we no longer have the limitless recording budget you get with major record companies. Once you have unlimited time, you just sit around wondering if there’s a better way to do things. This time, we knew what we had to do on each song every day. That timetable was good for us.”
Fatal Mistakes reached No 5 on its release in May, Del Amitri’s best chart position since Twisted got to No 3 in 1995. Justin smiles: “We were really chuffed with No 5. What we found heartening is that journalists who really didn’t like Del Amitri gave it good reviews. We’ve got a reputation: ‘They’re OK, but they’re not terribly with it.’ And that’s fine. But it’s nice to hear people coming back to us years later saying: ‘Actually, they’re really good songwriters.’ That’s all we ever wanted to hear. We’d made Fatal Mistakes wondering: ‘Can we still do this?’”
The band split in 2002, initially reuniting for tours in 2014 and 2018 before deciding it was time for a new album. It means Del Amitri’s new tour has to work out where to fit new songs into their concerts for the first time in decades. Iain admits: “You have to get match fit with new songs before putting them in front of an audience. It’s like a football team trying out set-piece routines: you might think it’s going to work, but then you need to try them in a real match. Not that the audience are the opposition!” Justin interrupts, laughing: “Good analogy. I’ll have to introduce the new songs as ‘This is our latest set-piece.’ Then we’ll see which songs would have been best left on the training ground.”
You have to get match fit with new songs before putting them in front of an audience. It’s like a football team trying out set-piece routines: you might think it’s going to work, but then you need to try them in a real match. Not that the audience are the opposition!
Chatting over Zoom, Justin and Iain have the easy, jokey friendship of a pair who’ve been firm friends since 1982, when Iain responded to Justin’s advert in a Glasgow music shop window asking for a potential guitarist. “There are far fewer arguments now than we were younger,” Iain acknowledges. “Those barneys were upsetting for all concerned and we’ve avoided those since the comeback.” Justin adds: “When we first went back on the road in 2014, I realised how lovely this life is. I looked at the backstage catering and thought: ‘This is lovely!’ You have breakfast, get in a nice van, trundle to a gig, have pleasant food, do a show, go to a lovely hotel. In the 90s, we had to do ten interviews a day, so it all felt quite stressful. This time, it’s great. I think to myself: ‘Why did we stop doing this for ten years?’”
Fatal Mistakes is Del Amitri’s fifth Top 10 album and they’ve enjoyed 15 Top 40 singles. Justin is happy with the band’s status, explaining: “We were a band people had sort-of heard of. We were never bothered about being more critically recognised, because we were on the radio so much. Everywhere we went, people said: ‘Oh, I know you from that song on the radio.’ We felt vindicated that people heard what we were doing and liked it, so we were comfortable with our level. Maybe we’d have been bigger if we’d slept with some models. Going out with somebody famous was the way to get ahead in the 90s. We weren’t really interested in all that.”
Del Amitri have played stadium shows opening for The Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi and REM. Iain recalls: “The scale of those shows is madness. You’re so far from your audience that your show has to become a pantomime.” Justin nods in acknowledgement, saying: “You get the audience’s attention by running around like a dick, waving your hands everywhere. It’s easy to get caught out by that. Two days after opening for Bon Jovi, you’re in a tiny club in Germany, doing the same moves and looking totally ridiculous. You have to remind yourself: ‘People can see you move your eyebrows in here.’”
Although there’s a restless energy to Del Amitri’s music, their hits maintained intimacy, partly thanks to Justin’s dark lyrics. Fatal Mistakes is full of Justin’s ability to write about bleak subject matter and inject it into sweet-sounding pop songs. The singer attributes that mixture to his childhood, revealing: “I grew up on The Beatles, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Cole Porter. Their songs are shiny, poppy and very radio-friendly, but there are odd themes in those lyrics. The way I write came from there. It’s also the lifelong teenage ethos, showing off to girls by sounding clever. Our first songs were essentially a young man trying to sound like he’s read some books.” Would Justin ever write a straightforward love song? “I’ve been challenged to try,” he laughs. “I just can’t do it. I always put in a little fishhook that gets into you. For me, there has to be a plot in a song, and plots revolve around something going wrong. Stevie Wonder, Prince and James Brown wrote amazing love songs, but I can’t.”
During their split, Justin released four solo albums, while Iain became a producer for bands including The Maccabees. The guitarist also gained a doctorate and a masters in composition. “That formal education gives you a different perspective on what works in a song,” Iain considers. “You’d assume it might start to complicate things, but it actually teaches you to keep it simple. A lot of rock bands want to make noise all the time. My training has made realise that, in songwriting, the simpler the better.”
Following the success of Fatal Mistakes, the band promise they won’t keep fans waiting another 19 years for a new album. Iain says: “We’ve got a lot of new songs written, and by spring we’ll maybe start thinking seriously about the next record. The big thing now is that we need to tour Fatal Mistakes before we can move on. This record has been a long time coming and we want to get it in front of people.”