Ian McNabb, Icicle Works frontman and one of our premier song-writers, give Dave Jennings an update on another busy year for him.
In May, I was lucky enough to witness one of the finest live shows I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen some absolute belters) as Ian McNabb and his outstanding band performed firstly The Icicle Works debut album, and then his solo, Mercury Prize nominated album, Head Like a Rock. The show was memorable for many reasons, not least because it was delivered before a packed hometown crowd. The two albums performed showcased the youthful exuberance of the nascent Icicle Works and the fully developed songwriter who, in conjunction with Crazy horse, produced one of the best albums of the Nineties.
Ever prolific, his most recent album, Our Future in Space, is one of his best and Ian chatted to me about that and the range of live shows he has coming up.
LTW: The title track of your last album, Our Future in Space, is a laugh out loud yet painfully accurate comment on the state of many relationships?
Ian McNabb: The thing about that one, is the way you always get nagged by your wife or partner, and the longer you’ve been together, the list of topics seems to diminish. I saw a Woody Allen film once and he was in bed with his girlfriend and every time she nagged him he kept going on about the assassination of Kennedy and I thought it was really funny. So I thought any time someone gives you nag, just respond by mentioning something really important like our future in space. It’s a simple tune and I kept it short and just to make sure it didn’t get played on the radio I chucked a swear word in there. We wouldn’t want anything to change now would we?
LTW: Talking about space and your interest in it, what memories have the recent celebrations of the moon landings stirred for you?
IM: I’m an absolute geek on all that stuff. It was such a big part of us growing up. When I was eight years old, two big things happened that year; my dad took me to 2001 A Space Odyssey in the Abbey Cinerama, the biggest screen we had in Liverpool, I was really young when I watched that film and didn’t really have a clue what was going on but I got the idea that, by the time I was an adult, I would be travelling to the Moon. Then my parents got me out of bed at 4 am in July 1969 to see what you could of the Moon landing and the images are just indelible. I got into all that stuff a long time before I got into music, I was never really football mad as a kid but all the Space stuff stuck with me. I’m always one for a good conspiracy theory but people who go on about us not really landing on the Moon just drive me crackers to be honest as it’s so obvious we did. I know it cost an awful lot of money and that could probably have been spent better elsewhere as it probably didn’t do a lot for Humanity, but I think it still remains the most significant thing we have ever achieved. I’ve really enjoyed all the programmes that have been on recently about it.
LTW: Making Silver Sing and Girls From Across The Water are two ballads which are as good as any you have written?
IM: When I did Making Silver Sing originally it was on acoustic guitar but when we recorded it, I think it really delivered the emotional whack that I wanted it to. Basically that song is all about being a musician and the different aspects of it, It starts with a bunch of kids playing in a pub somewhere, then there’s an old guy playing in another pub room and then there’s the massive star playing an arena. This is based on when I supported Neil Young in Liverpool and I saw him up c;lose and all the issues involved in a show like that. Making Silver Sing refers to the noise of the guitar strings and that’s what they all have in common regardless of where they are playing.
Girls From Across the Water is basically a two chord trick I threw together near the end of the album but I changed the arrangement when we recorded it. It has the sort of innocent feel about it, the first flush of love thing and I do like writing about that as the older you get the more cynical you become. I do agree with you, they’re good ones and I played them pretty much every night for eighteen months which is a good sign that they work and I like them.
LTW: The Britney Spears cover, Toxic, may have surprised a few?
IM: I always like to do something unexpected and this is the third album I’ve done with Cold Shoulder. Everyone expects me to do a Neil Young or Bob Dylan song but I like to do something different like on Krugerrands I did a cover of Let’s Go All the Way by Sly Fox and it went down really well. I like to do cover versions of songs that are so far away from what I normally do and I love Britney Spears records, especially mid-period ones which if you listen to them they.re as good as anything Prince was knocking out. We listened to it, put it in a lower key, obviously, then put a rock arrangement on it with a sort of Spaghetti Western feel to it. We did it for a laugh but I liked it so much we put it on the album.
LTW: The subject of arrangement fascinates me and the possibilities that exist after a song has been written but before it’s been recorded. How important is it in the process?
IM: Well it’s different depending on what sort of song I’m doing really. If it’s the rockier stuff, two guitars bass and drums you sort of know what it’s going to be. I’m doing an album at the moment with someone I’ve worked with for a number of years and I’ve generally got an idea of how I want it to sound, but I do like the collaboration aspect of where I’ll go in and he will hear it make suggestions and I will say what bits I want to keep but often I will end up with vocal parts and arrangements that I wouldn’t have thought of doing and it makes it a bit special. At the moment I’m writing really quickly and the studio is only over the water so if I have a day free I’ll send him a demo over so he’s heard it a couple of times before I get there and then we start work and decide how we want it to sound and if we need to get a drummer in for instance. It usually comes together pretty quickly. When you’ve been doing it so long, you find a way of getting things done because you know how it works. When we did the first Icicle Works album at Rockfield studios in Wales, we were there for seven weeks but that just doesn’t happen anymore. Firstly because of the cost but also because we’ve got pro tools. Just rewinding the tape added up to about a week back then. So, to sum up arrangement I’ve usually got an idea of what I want but it’s not set in stone unless I’ve been playing it with the band.
LTW: The Day That I learned to Say No is an interesting and uplifting song. Can you tell us about the subject matter?
IM: It’s a really fast song for me and I have struggled with the diction due to the speed of it. Basically, I started as a musician when I was fourteen and what other job do you go to where your “office” is a fully stocked bar? That’s what I get every gig and basically backstage is full of free ale and a number of musicians have become addicted as is well documented. A few people have got in touch with me who are in recovery from various issues and that’s nice as it’s a song of hope really. It’s the fastest song on the album and I think it’s very joyous and a nice alternative to the usual songs about this issue which can become very dark and serious. It’s optimistic and I haven’t written too many like that. There’s quite a few tracks on ‘Our Future in Space’ where I’ve pushed myself a lot. It’s not difficult to write new songs, what is difficult is to come up with something you haven’t said a million times before. Trying to find subject matter is always interesting as the “I love you, you don’t love me” path is very well-trodden.
As I’m going about my business during the day, I’ll get song titles in my head, so I’ll have a list of twenty-five to thirty song titles all the time. Then, when I eventually get an idea for a riff or a hook or something, I’ve got an idea already formed to match it to. I came up with one the other week about all the political shit that goes on called “No one Tells a Lie Like a Dude With a Tie” and I thought that’s a great title for a song so I started writing that one the other day.
I’ve got plenty of songs ready to record. The way I see it is why should I stop? In the old days you would do an album around every eighteen months and then in the late ‘80’s and ‘90’s, people started putting an album out every four or five years. Basically, if you’re a musician or a song-writer you should at least be able to knock out an album every year or so. I’m not at that level where I can go and tour an album for two years or so, I don’t really play outside the UK apart from the odd one-off gig abroad. I haven’t got kids so I don’t really have much to think about apart from music, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes not. Also, you don’t know how long you’ve got do you? If I do a good album I think “well it will be ok if I get hit by a bus tomorrow as it’s all done” and then I do another and another and I just want to keep them coming. What I absolutely don’t want is me keeling over one day and then somebody going into my files and finding loads of unfinished stuff and some twat mixing them when there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t like to have anything lying around and if I have any demos they get finished quickly. Can you imagine around 2030 the Ian McNabb Box Set coming out with a demo I’d done and some current band playing on it with my voice sounding like it was on the telephone? I can’t think of anything worse.
LTW: The tour you did earlier in the year of The Icicle Works and Head Like a Rock was an absolutely stunning performance. The lasting impression I got was of the amount of preparation it must have required?
IM: You wouldn’t believe the amount of work that went into it. Firstly, finding two female backing singers who I’d never met before but who were absolutely incredible and added to the sound. The concept was based on the fact that I was aware of it being the Thirty Fifth Anniversary of The Icicle Works and the Twenty Fifth Anniversary of Head Like a Rock and loads of people go out and tour albums on their anniversary and then do their greatest hits. However, I thought “stuff that, I want to play both albums”. I’m sure someone else has done two albums, but I certainly haven’t. Also, the two albums are so different in style; you’ve got the frantic pace of The Icicle Works and then the more West Coast Rock sound of Head Like a Rock and it was really quite a feat to get one band that could play both those albums with the different instrumentations. We were limited in rehearsal time and only actually had two days of the full band together before we went out so to pull all that together was a major achievement.
LTW: Watching the show I was struck by the evolution of you as a song-writer, from the early days of The Icicle Works to the full fruition evident on Head Like a Rock. Did doing the two albums stir any memories for you?
IM: I have to say it doesn’t really. The thing is, all The Icicle Works stuff came out of my head when I was sitting in a room on my own as a twenty-one-year-old, writing the songs. The main thing with The Icicle Works album is that it was our high point, we’d really made it and after that we never had as much success as we did with that album so I remember how exciting it all was. It happened very quickly for us and we didn’t really appreciate it at the time. When I play the album now, I’m very proud of the songs but for a long time I couldn’t really listen to them and I think you’ll find them with many artists. How often do you look at old photo books? I never liked looking back to be honest but now it seems to be the done thing. Go and see a band you love and the chances are that the set list will be comprised of material that was written over twenty or thirty years ago. Because the tickets cost so much money, people want to hear two hours of stuff they know and love, they don’t want to hear eight songs off the new album. But to get back to the question of did it bring any memories, when I’m on stage playing guitar and singing those songs, the only thing going through my mind is “what’s the next fucking word?”. I play solo shows a lot and I have to remember around thirty songs and I don’t like using cue aids like a lot of artists. Fuck that, I’ve learned these songs and I don’t want a prompt to help me.
LTW: You’re taking The Icicle Works back out in the Autumn?
IM: Yes, that’s going to be a greatest hits show around the country. It won’t make any money as the overheads at the venues we are playing are so great, whereas my solo gigs are a lot more lucrative. I may consider touring another album in the future, I think Merseybeast would work well for playing right through.
At the moment though, I’m concentrating on doing the album I’m working on and then I’ve got a gig in Liverpool with Cold Shoulder which is a very different thing from The Icicle Works. We’re not playing any Icicle Works songs as we’ve done three albums and have around thirty songs at our disposal and there’s also songs from my other albums such as Hurricane Elaine, Rider (The Heartless Mare) and High on a Hill that never get an outing. New album will be finished by the end of the year and out next spring hopefully, called Utopian and it’s my twentieth so I’m really looking forward to it.
Ian McNabb is currently out on tour with The Icicle Works and will play with Cold Shoulder at The Arts Club in Liverpool. He also has a rare US date in Atlanta in January 2020 and, as Ian mentioned in the interview, a new album in the offing next spring.
Check out IanMcnabb.com for more details.
Photo credit – Helen Robinson