Del Amitri: We don't even like ourselves

A series of hits in the Nineties earnt Del Amitri a loyal, but dwindling following. So if this album doesn't sell, they tell Nick Coleman, they're out. But fans beware: their new direction may come as quite a shock
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The Independent Culture

It's drizzling in Notting Hill. Iain Harvie, Justin Currie and I are standing outside a restaurant in which we've just consumed a splendid lunch at their record company's expense. The sky is the colour of sugar paper. Drizzle alights on Harvie's swag of hair in tiny beads. "It's a pretty straightforward equation," he says, looking up. "If we don't sell 300,000 copies of the new album, we're out. It's that simple."

Currie hunches in his coat, puts on a large pair of tinted specs. He looks like rock stars do at lunchtime in Notting Hill. I raise an eyebrow. "Really? That many?"

"Aye," says Currie. "And who's to say it would be a bad thing. I wouldn't say it was, necessarily."

Heavens. I'm shocked. But not surprised. Three-hundred thousand seems like an awful lot of records as a bare minimum for survival in today's record industry, and surely Del Amitri albums don't cost that much to make. But the industry is in a state of fiscal paralysis at the moment, as everybody knows, so who are we to argue with the accountants? All the same, 300,000...

"Really?" I splutter again. "But that's... that's millions."

"Well, there it is. It's the end of a cycle. And I happen to think it might be good for us." Currie wants to go. He has a hangover and has business to attend to. The sky is crying, but Del Amitri don't appear to be. We go our separate ways through the grey.

"Del Amitri" is not, as you might have read, Ancient Greek for "from the womb" (but hey, whichever rock historian it was who got his wires crossed was at least getting them creatively crossed – "mitra" is Greek for womb).

All the same, From The Womb would have suited the band rather well, connoting as it does that all-or-nothing, self-dramatising passion once associated with rock's higher ideals – rock as lifelong commitment, as avocation, as force of nature. Rock as something you do because you have no other choice.

And of course, "from the womb" is not the kind of language you use with careers advisers. But, luckily, Del Amitri never were a career band. Indeed, as the post-punk DIY social ethos morphed into something grander and altogether more worthy, Currie and Harvie stood in the ferment of the early-Eighties Glasgow indie music scene and thought they might have a go at changing the world. That was what you did in those days.

"Unfortunately," says Currie over lunch in March 2002, "we were rubbish. We were a simply dreadful live act, absolutely appalling. So we just tried to get better. Followed our noses. There was no plan. And when you've done a support slot for the Monochrome Set around all the universities of England, and watched the entire front row making faces at you, it does kind of occur to you that the world may not be changed by you after all."

Still, they did get better, chiefly by applying themselves to the task of writing thoughtful, witty, faintly dismal songs about the experience of life, and then by playing them straight with guitars. They were good. Through most of the Nineties they even had hits. The best of them – "Here and Now" and "Driving with the Brakes On" from the album Twisted in 1995 – took stark moments of revelation in a fellow's life and snapped them in warm, grainy, saturated colour to hang in the private gallery of the soul, or some such attractive location. Both were small pop classics of the kind we seem not to bother with anymore.

Indeed, in the semiotic forest that has contrived to fur up rock's latter days, Del Amitri became so good at doing what they did that they dug themselves into the bole of a mighty oak marked "high-quality, melodic soft-rock with proper lyrics". All very well and good, but no one but the usual druids had danced around that particular tree for years. "Groundhog day", their management called it, as the Dels found themselves once more playing to the same audience in the same German town off the back of an album sounding remarkably similar to the last one.

"We'd had pretty much the same level of success since 1990," says Justin, admirably blandly, without displaying a hint of that little-boy resentment that can make rock stars so ghastly. "No massive failures, no massive crossover successes." The Dels were trapped in a softly fermenting career humus of their own making.

"We are now, basically, starting again." Iain Harvie seems to be slightly less tense than his co-founding Del. But it could be that he's not quite so hung over. One thing is clear, though. They're both out to irritate their fans.

Ian: "The new album Can You Do Me Good? will piss 'em off because it's not just guitars, drums, bass and keyboards. There's a certain cross-section of the record buying public who think that anything else is heresy..."

Justin: "Some of our fans are very purist that way. They don't like modern noises. And some of them seem to have a complete antipathy towards anything to do with soul music. We tried it once before and we got letters saying, 'This is disgusting – you sound like Wet Wet Wet!' We were, of course, trying to sound like the BeeGees.

"Some of them only like us because the music sounds 'real', 'authentic'. Which to us has always been a laughable concept – the way you make records, whoever you are, whether you make them sound like Neil Young or the Pet Shops Boys, it always involves artifice..."

So is Can You Do Me Good? Del Amitri's Young Americans? Will it represent the moral and aesthetic closure Scottish pop has been searching for since the pomp of the Wets, Love & Money, Hipsway and all those other "smooth, slick, careerist white soul bands who signed huge deals in the Eighties – and who, incidentally, thought we were the scum of the earth"?

Probably not. Can You Do Me Good? sounds like Del Amitri, with less guitars, more modern noises. It's a good record. A pissed-off-sounding one too.

Justin, do you think that if you weren't in Del Amitri you'd be a fan?

"That's a tough one. Probably not, I have to say."

"But that's the case with lots of musicians..." interjects Harvie, manfully.

"A lot of the music our fans like, we kind of abhor really," continues Currie, doggedly. "You know: Deacon Blue. And I always suspect that a certain percentage of our audience has at least one Beautiful South record. And that's quite depressing." Then he brightens. "But you do meet the oddest people. There was this wee guy at one of our East Coast shows, down in the front row singing along with all the lyrics. All of them. Now our audience is basically middle-class white and this guy was black.

"I saw him afterwards and I said it was really nice to see someone who looks like you at one of our gigs. And he said, 'Oh yeah, I really like you guys. I've loved your band since your first record.' Great. So I asked him what else he liked, and he said, 'Oh, I only listen to techno. And Del Amitri.'"

Justin turns to look me in the eye for the first time, holds his knife and fork akimbo, drops his jaw, grins. "Fanta-a-astic!" he says, with great emphasis and astonishment.

'Can You Do Me Good?' is released on Mercury Records on Monday

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