Charlie Burchill by Vince Barker
Photo: Vince Barker

To paraphrase three very different players: “If a song works on acoustic guitar, it has possibilities” (Neil Young); “There’s no lying with the acoustic guitar” (Slash); and “If you play acoustic guitar you’re the depressed, sensitive guy” (Elliot Smith). Option three is certainly not the case for Simple Minds’ Charlie Burchill, currently on tour to promote the legendary Scottish group’s Acoustic album.

“It’s going great, way beyond our expectations,” a clearly delighted Burchill beams, backstage at a Bristol, U.K. show. “We’ve been avoiding any unplugged scenario – what we call ‘bongos on the beach’ – for 20 years. The whole ‘90s unplugged shows all had this air of being a bit... impoverished! It just didn’t seem us. So we’d been very nervous. But this is quite a big show, now. In terms of lights, backdrops, staging, it’s as big as our big show. It’s not ‘busking’, that’s for sure.”

For a band known for elaborate “big music” – full of skyscraping guitar FX, thunderclap drums and rich keyboard textures – the Acoustic album and tour have been quite a challenge for Simple Minds. “Our songs mean a lot to people, so we had to be careful,” adds frontman Jim Kerr. “It wasn’t a case of just knocking up some acoustic riffs. We had to show respect to the songs and retain everything that made them good in the first place, and we wanted to create a Simple Minds party album, not a traditional, introspective acoustic album – more something that people will play during goods times.”

You do, of course, get “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”, “Alive and Kicking”, and “Waterfront”. But this acoustic set also recasts early electro-rock tracks such as “The American”, “Chelsea Girl” and “New Gold Dream” in bold new shapes. Charlie Burchill explains more...

Many bands have an acoustic section to a show: was there a point for Simple Minds that this became a whole show, and a whole album of reworked tracks?

“It was gradual. Well, we’d been doing ‘The American’ acoustically a bit, and our manager said he thought we should try a whole show. At first we just thought: why? Who’d be really interested? Even doing ‘The American’ that way all felt a bit Spinal Tap at first, it was all a bit ‘Battle of Evermore’... You could almost see the druids coming onstage, Stonehenge descending, y’know? [aughs]. ‘The American’ is an odd track to start with, I suppose: very electronic, very angular. But Jim liked how I’d rearranged it, he sang on it, and once we’d tried three or so songs we realized we did have an acoustic ‘sound’. It had an identity. So we gradually tried other songs.”

Were there some classic Simple Minds songs that just didn’t work in this way?

“Oh yeah. For some songs, we couldn’t find the tempo, couldn’t find the right rhythm. Oddly, it was some of the more electronic ones that worked better. But ‘All The Things She Said,’ a pretty big hit in the U.S., we just couldn’t make it work. We had quite a few that just turned into a bit of a dirge. And we’ve got a few of those already [laughs].”

I’m guessing that like most guitarists, you started playing on acoustic guitar?

“Oh yeah. We’ve still got the ‘Embassy’ guitar, which is what I learned on as a kid – a cheap acoustic my mum got using tokens you’d get with Embassy cigarettes. She was a heavy smoker. So the guitar is covered with Embassy cigarette stickers. People say, oh that’s amazing! Well, it is until they find out she died of emphysema. But it’s kind of symbolic to us.

“My brother, four years older, played acoustic and I’d grab it, and Jim and I started just sitting in my bedroom writing songs or playing Velvet Underground, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young covers... Our first album, Life in a Day, was all written on acoustic, so it’s not completely alien.”

“But acoustics these days, wow, they play so well. The Gibson Hummingbirds and Doves I’ve got in particular. They’re just so good. “

Tell us a bit about the Gibson Hummingbirds that you’re using for the shows...

“Well, I’ve got quite a few old acoustics. I’ve got old ‘60s and ‘70s Martins but I just don’t get on that well with them, really. But way back I also bought a ‘65 Gibson Hummingbird, which is probably the best acoustic I own, and I got a ‘64 Epiphone Texan as well. I’ve always had loads of Gibsons, always gravitated towards them. But I didn’t want to take my old Hummingbird out live, so I tried this new one.”

“For the parts I’m playing in this set, I need a guitar with a lot of ‘movement’ in it. I tried a J-45: that didn’t really work, not a big enough sound. A J-200, too: beautiful, maybe it is a little too big. But the Doves and Hummingbirds are spot on. And, as I say, they play so well with a beautiful low action.”

“It’s the Standard, not the Vintage model. It was the only one they had at the time, but it was so lovely anyway. I’ve got a Dove too, but this Hummingbird is the one. I use pretty standard strings, .11 to .58, and it sounds fantastic.”

And you’ve stuck with factory-fitted LR Baggs pickup system?

“Yeah, it’s the stock system, it just works. I’ve tried loads, I’ve had the Baggs Lyric systems on a few of my other acoustics. Some of the bridge pickup systems still have a slightly plastic sound, to me, but this really doesn’t. With the AER acoustic amps we’re using, you still really hear all the wonderful tone of the Hummingbird, y’know? We DI the amps to go out front, but it’s a great mix. Gordy [Goudie, second Simple Minds guitarist] has got a warm, big acoustic sound; I’m a little more noodly.”

Over the years, you’ve used plenty of other Gibsons too?

“Yeah, early on I had a red Flying V. Jim had a white one, never played the thing. I started with a Flying V really, ‘cos I was a big Chris Spedding fan. I looked for ages for a Flying V with one pickup, like his... until someone told me he’d just taken a pickup off it. I didn’t know you could do that!

“My white ES-335, I used live for years. I used a lovely Gibson Barney Kessel, too. I’ve got a 1963 ES-345 which is always great for the records, that’s an amazing guitar. I had a black ‘69 Les Paul that I used a lot for recording, but that got stolen. The main one I have now I got back in the early ‘90s. It needed a bit of work, but I love that one. It’s become my main live guitar.”

Was it down to you alone to work out the new acoustic parts for the songs, or did you work closely with Gordy Goudie?

“It’s varied. ‘Speed Your Love to Me’ was really deconstructed, and we kind of worked that out together, but it was mostly just me, re-demoing the songs, as it were, just on the Hummingbird. We very nearly scrapped the idea of recording an album on the first day, though. It just wasn’t happening. But all we had to do was to play this way all together for a good few weeks before trying to record anything, and it started to work. We just had to lock in a bit. It’s quite tricky.”

The shows seem to have really developed, with not just a “greatest hits” tracklist?

“Yes, we wanted that. We’re playing more obscure songs now, too. There’s a track ‘Big Sleep’ that we’re playing now, and ‘Hunter and the Hunted’ (both from the classic New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84 album), real fan tracks, y’know? We sometimes do ‘The Cross’ by Prince, and [The Pogues’] ‘Dirty Old Town’, too. It’s fun.”

So, will playing these acoustic shows affect Simple Minds in the long-term?

“I think it will. Everyone has commented on the space in the music, particularly with Jim’s vocal. If you don’t have a lot of space around a vocal, you do lose a lot of expression and I think that’s going to affect the sound in the future. Just to hear the breaths in the vocal, y’know, with more ethereal sounds behind. The whole thing has taught us a lot. Unexpectedly so, but in a really good way.”

Click for full on spec of the Gibson Hummingbird Standard.