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Currie Focuses on Love Life Ruins, but the Music’s Not Gloomy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Scottish rock band del Amitri takes an appealing approach to singing about romantic disasters and the spiritual emptiness of modern life: Feel your Angst deeply, but don’t let it wrap the music in a gloomy shroud.

Justin Currie, the singer and songwriter of the band whose nonsense name sounds like Don Ameche, has filled most of del Amitri’s album, “Waking Hours,” with the wreckage of his love life. But neither the music, nor the 25-year-old Currie’s manner in a recent phone interview betrayed the sort of sulky, black-clad moody-brooding persona that characterizes a good deal of British rock.

“Most of the songs are true,” Currie, whose band plays tonight at the Coach House, said in a sprightly tone of voice thickened by a rich Scottish burr. “I don’t think I’ve had more of a rough time with romance and love than anyone else.

“But if you’re a self-indulgent, self-pitying little bastard like I am, that’s what you write about. There are a lot of things to be happy about, but I don’t really write happy songs. I’m hoping to get out of it.”

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Currie broke into a hearty cackle at the suggestion that even “Empty,” the one song where he does get the girl rather than being floored by a roundhouse punch to the heart, is something less than sunny. Currie spends the song in guilt-racked misery because his rival for the woman’s affections is taking the loss too hard.

“It’s sickening, really. I really must stop doing this,” he said merrily.

“It takes real genius to write a happy love song,” Currie said after he had stopped chuckling at his inability to write anything but a sad one. “Paul McCartney has done a couple of them.”

Currie also cited “Love,” the haiku-sparse, plainly emotional ode from John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” album. “The day I can write one like that, I’ll know I really know what I’m doing.”

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In fact, del Amitri shows considerable pop know-how on “Waking Hours.” The lyrics may be about romantic setbacks or feelings of general isolation and anomie, but songs such as “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” and “This Side of the Morning” juxtapose feelings of loss with music that comes alive with a rootsy kick featuring a sharp blend of electric guitars and warm-sounding acoustic instruments and keyboards.

Like “Fourth of July,” Dave Alvin’s landmark song for X, “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” centers on the moment in which a lover decides to bale out of a relationship. Like Alvin’s song, it refuses to overindulge in conventional sorrow, conveying instead how a sense of near-celebratory relief can outweigh the sadness involved in letting go of a love affair. That mixture of emotions proves to be more poignant than monochromatic melancholy.

Elsewhere, Currie’s ability to leaven unhappiness with a wry lyrical barb recalls the likes of such practiced British pop craftsmen as Squeeze, Nick Lowe and Graham Parker.

“I was definitely influenced by Graham Parker,” said Currie, whose singing sometimes echoes Parker’s huskiness and R&B-tinged; phrasing. “Before punk rock, he was the first thing I listened to, after the Beatles, that wasn’t bombastic ‘70s nonsense.”

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It was the British punk explosion of the late ‘70s--with such models as the Clash, the Damned and the Sex Pistols--that inspired Currie to pick up a bass guitar and start del Amitri nine years ago with his guitarist friend, Iain Harvie. The two are the only holdovers from the band’s original teen-age lineup. Currie said the name del Amitri, loosely derived from Dmitri, “was chosen because other bands at the time had all these meaningful, pseudo-political names. I loved all those bands, like Joy Division and Scritti Politti and Durutti Column, but I wanted to have a less pretentious approach. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Del Amitri emerged with a 1985 debut album for Chrysalis Records, but promptly submerged.

“It was an incredibly unsuccessful album,” Currie said. “The reception was dreadful. We sold almost no copies of that record. Our record company hated it, and we were incredibly unfashionable and unhip.”

But a trickle of fan mail came in from the United States, where del Amitri discovered that it was developing a cult following based on college radio play. The group’s manager at the time, a transplanted American, made a point of keeping in contact with the fans who wrote, fostering close relationships that led, in 1986, to a tour that relied entirely on the kindness of strangers who enjoyed del Amitri’s music.

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“The only feedback we’d get was reading these letters,” Currie said. “It kept the band going in a lot of ways.”

By the time the band flew to the United States, Currie said, it had severed ties with its record company. Without the usual financial and logistic backing, del Amitri set up a tour in which fans in each city booked and promoted its shows.

“They volunteered to become kind of amateur promoters overnight,” Currie said. “The remarkable thing is that all of them were very good at it. They were almost on a little mission. It was a good way to see America. We were staying with real people and families, instead of in hotels. We didn’t have any money, but the generosity was such that we didn’t need any money.”

Hunger and fatigue were del Amitri’s lot while it traveled between cities where it could find fan hospitality, but the band managed to tour America for several weeks. Returning to Scotland, Currie and Harvie took time off before recording new songs that attracted a swarm of attention from record companies.

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“It was quite bizarre,” Currie said. “Suddenly everybody wanted us. It was a real victory for us, because we’d kept going and come back. The music business had never had any time for us. It was really uplifting.”

Del Amitri signed with A&M; Records in 1987, thinking that it was the label most likely to be patient instead of demanding an instant hit. “We didn’t foresee ‘Waking Hours’ taking off,” Currie said. “We wanted to keep doing albums until we had a lucky break. We wanted a label that would stick behind us.”

In Britain, del Amitri had a hit with the folk-tinged social critique, “Nothing Ever Happens,” which ends “Waking Hours” with a lyrically sour but musically sweet look at the aimlessness of middle-class living. In the United States, “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” has received attention from college and alternative-rock stations.

“We’ve kind of become pop stars,” Currie said with jaunty indifference in his voice.

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Now the band--Currie and Harvie, plus three new members, drummer Bryan McDermott, guitarist David Cummings and keyboards player-accordion player Andy Alston--is on its first conventional tour of the United States, complete with hotel reservations and professionally promoted shows.

Currie said the improved perks have not given del Amitri a more mercenary outlook than when it was a broke band surviving on the generosity of a small corps of fans.

“We didn’t come to America with any idea of what we want from it,” Currie said. “A lot of groups have the idea of coming to a market--to ‘crack that market.’ If you have that idea, you should be selling encyclopedias.”

Del Amitri, Janata and Love of Fire play tonight at 9 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $13.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.

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