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IAN McNABB: THE FIRE STILL BURNS INSIDE THE SOUL – INTERVIEW BY NIGEL CARTNER

 
Ian McNabb grew to fame from his work as lead singer/guitarist and song writer of Liverpudlian alternative pop/rock band ‘The Icicle Works’ in the 1980s. After their split in 1988, McNabb went on to endure a fascinating solo career, which took him to the same heights and peaks that he reached with the group, seeing him work with some great artists and be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 1994. After eight solo albums, five compilations, two live albums and an autobiography, McNabb still has that desire that sees him constantly writing new material and performing live, drawing in many cult fans that have supported him since the 80s, as well as many new fans that have only recently discovered the talent and ingenuity that he possesses. Fresh from the 30th anniversary of ‘The Icicle Works’ tour, which still attracted a large audience, McNabb was back working the smaller solo scene. I was grateful that I managed to meet and catch up with him at The Blue Cat Café in Stockport for one of his shows and find out his reaction to the recent anniversary tour, what inspires him and why he thinks he is just getting started:

NIGE: You’ve recently completed the 30th anniversary tour with ‘The Icicle Works’, how did it go?

IAN: It was really good. We did it five years ago for the 25th anniversary and loads of people came. It was very nostalgic and people like to hear the old stuff.

NIGE: Is that why you decided to do it because of the reaction of the 25th anniversary?

IAN: Well the hay wagon comes through on an anniversary and you can either jump on it or not bother, but it seems to make sense. Lots of people come and it’s fun to do and play those songs that I don’t usually play for a full two hours of ‘Icicle Works’ only. Its fun to sing all those lyrics that I wrote when I didn’t know what anything was about, but I wouldn’t like to do it all the time.

NIGE: Were you surprised with the numbers that attended? I was at the Manchester gig and that generated quite an appeal.

IAN: I suppose I am quite surprised that after all this time so many people turn up to hear the songs. More people turn up to ‘The Icicle Works’ shows than they do to my shows. Obviously the solo shows are a different thing but it goes up a notch (for ‘The Icicle Works). It was great though, in London there were people being moshed and carried out, people being thrown over barriers and all kinds of stuff, pretty chaotic and quite exciting. I’m just proud that these songs have seemingly stood the test of time and still mean a lot to people. That gives you the stamp of approval because time is the ultimate judge of music. Things can be hot for a while and be really successful and two years later you can be forgotten about, and that’s all I need to say about ‘Kula Shaker.’

NIGE: What was the best thing about being in ‘The Icicle Works’ at the time?

IAN: Well it was the first proper thing that I did, writing my own songs, performing to big crowds, travelling around the world and getting paid with my mates. It was incredibly exciting to be in that situation before you get more cynical with age. It was just amazing and seemed so easy in them days. You put a record out and you go on tour, people buy the record, get good reviews, make people happy and it never seemed difficult and seemed to work. It’s more difficult to pull stuff off like that now. In them days there was no internet or mobile phones, which seemed simpler. We even got to do ‘Top of the Pops’, which isn’t even around anymore. I think I caught the tail end of a great period of music. The 80s was the back end but still had that magic and energy to it. The 90s was something else altogether. The noughties are just devoid of excitement. Every decade had something excitement from the 50s onwards, but now it’s just the XFactor and all a bit weird with no one really knowing what’s going on.

NIGE: Ultimately, what went wrong with ‘The Icicle Works’ that led to the split?

IAN: Well, people started getting married. For the first couple of albums we were just a little gang having a great time but then women started getting involved, the band started travelling separately, and the vibes of, “the girlfriends in and she doesn’t like this” started and stuff like that. We had hit a bit of a wall too as we seemed to peak with our first album. The first two singles and album were a hit in America, the UK, Japan and did reasonably well in Europe. The second album hit a bit of a dip. The first album was successful because we were a pop band, but we then turned into a rock band, and rock bands really have to play all the time, so we did a lot of touring, built it back up and by the third album we saw the rewards of all the touring and that was like the peak really. We couldn’t seem to get past that level as we weren’t really a people’s band. You couldn’t put us in with other bands for better or for worse, so we just hit a wall, and we kept running and hitting it, and we all got frustrated with that. But because we were all young, we just said “fuck this I’m going to do something else”, not “let’s just take a year off, do other stuff and come back together.” We just packed it in and when we did that, Chris went off to join ‘The La’s’ and we all just went our separate ways and there was no way back. So, there was a few different elements really, falling out of love with each other and moving on really, which happens with a lot of bands. When I look back I’m amazed that we went for seven years, it seemed like a lifetime at the time.

NIGE: From the split, the others joined other bands, what made you go solo?

IAN: Well I had to get out there and slug it on my own solo because I’m a writer and it’s very difficult to join someone else’s band. I played bass and keyboards with ‘The Waterboys’ for a while and that was fun but I’m not a session man. Going out as Ian McNabb was tough and freaked me out. When I saw an advert for a support gig I was doing, instead of saying ‘The Icicle Works’ it said ‘Ian McNabb’ and there was nothing to hide behind as it was just my name. But I went out there and played really small places, sometimes to as little as twelve people but kept going and built it up again. With my second album I got nominated for The Mercury Prize so it was back up there again, up there with ‘The Icicle Works’ at its peak.

NIGE: You started by playing in social clubs since you were fifteen, which took a lot of confidence. What were your musical influences at that point?

IAN: When I first got into music I was into ‘T.Rex’, ‘Led Zeppelin’, ‘Slade’ and ‘The Who’. All the really cool bands, then I got into Neil Young, Randy Newman and Van Morrison. Whenever I reel off my influences it’s just your bog standard list of really great artists from the 60s and 70s. The only artists that really influenced me from the 80s were ‘Echo and The Bunnymen’ and ‘REM’, before I started being able to hear what he was actually singing about, that’s when I kind of went off them a bit.

NIGE: Musically, how were you different in them days compared to now?

IAN: Well from just having done ‘The Icicle Works’ tour, the biggest difference musically between then and now is that what I do now is a hell of a lot simpler, because the old stuff is really hard to play. Nowadays I’ll just knock out a song and do something pretty simple with a good lyric and melody; bosh there you go, whereas back then we used to think about it for months. We couldn’t just have a basic beat; we’d got to have something weird. The drums couldn’t just do this, they had to do that, it had to be weird and complex. Playing that stuff now makes me think that if I would’ve known I was still going to be playing that stuff now I would’ve made it a lot easier, slower and in lower keys. Also, lyrically it’s a lot simpler now. You couldn’t just say “I love you” in 1984, you had to say something that sounded mystical and profound, dressed up in metaphors.

NIGE: I’ve heard you say that you’re only just getting started now, why is that?

IAN: I’d be worried if I felt differently. I think the worst thing you can feel as an artist is that you’ve done great stuff. I never listen to my own records, I can’t stand it. Steven Spielberg said that he couldn’t watch any of his films that everyone thinks are classics because all he sees is the bad edits, the mistakes and the rubber shark, not the tension of the movie, always thinking that he could do something better. That’s what I mean by just getting started. I think I’m just starting to get good now. I always think that the thing I’m working on now is better than what I did ten years ago. I don’t know if it is or not, that’s for time to judge, but I feel it is, and if I didn’t feel it was, then I wouldn’t be able to do it because what’s the point.

NIGE: You strike me as someone who has always been busy musically, with ‘The Icicle Works’ and several solo albums, but seemed to be on the peripheral of commerciality! Why do you think that is? Is that a conscious decision?

IAN: (laughs).No it’s not a conscious decision. Any artist that tells you that they don’t want to be more successful is a liar. It’s difficult, but for somebody in my position where there is a lot of guys who have been going for as long as I have, very few of them get a lot of press. ‘U2’ and ‘Morrissey’ are people who do, but there is a much longer list from my era that you don’t hear of anymore. It doesn’t mean they aren’t still going, but they don’t have any exposure. My last single got in the top 40 purely on the strength of fans buying it, but we couldn’t get it played on the radio because it doesn’t fit the programme, and you’re not in with whatever they think is going on now. This is particularly prevalent in England where they judge you on what you’ve done in the past or that you’re too old. In America and Europe, if you’ve done something great that’s new they’ll listen, and if they like it they’ll play it. In England, you’re consigned to the “where are they now” bin. I always say that if I make a record as good as ‘Strawberry Fields’ or ‘Good Vibrations’ or ‘Light My Fire’ it still wouldn’t make any difference. For instance, ‘Coldplay’ became friendly with ‘Echo and The Bunnymen’ because they recorded a couple of albums in Liverpool and spoke about them in interviews. I thought the patronage they gave ‘Echo and The Bunnymen’ would give them a platform with the new thing going on, but it didn’t make any difference because the media is run by kids, and by that I mean in their twenties, where they say, “‘Echo and The Bunnymen’, oh my dad liked them”, they’re just not with it. One person who was put in the wilderness and got brought back was Paul Weller. His first album came out in 1991 or 1992 and no one gave a flying fuck about it, but then ‘Oasis’ and all the Britpop mod types bands name dropped him and he became massive again, but that’s the exception.

NIGE: You’ve worked with some big names in your history, but who did you gel with the most?

IAN: Well, “worked with” probably isn’t the right word, more worked for. I took on a role as a member of the band in ‘The Waterboys’ for a couple of tours, collaborated with Ian Brodie from ‘The Lightning Seeds’ on some song writing and played in Ringo’s band but as a bass player, not collaborated with. Yeah it’s a lot of fun to do that because it’s doing something else that’s not your thing, so you have to fit in with being part of a band, which is a lot of fun for someone like me because I’m so used to carrying it and everything’s on me and if I’m shit that night then the gigs shit. But if you’re playing keyboards or bass in someone else’s band and you don’t have a great gig then no one really notices apart from the rest of the band. The best thing about it is turning up to a gig and not worrying about how many tickets have been sold because it’s not up to you; it’s up to the artist you’re playing with. It can be a bit weird being on stage and no one’s looking at you, there looking at the front man, but you get used to it, but it’s not something I’d do all the time, just a bit of fun really.

NIGE: What about Crazy Horse, (Neil Young’s band), you played with them?

IAN: We did an album together and that was amazing actually. I went over to The States and did a record with them, and that really brought out a good part of me to raise my game. I knew I had to be really shit hot to play with guys like that and it made me better. If you play with people who you regard highly, you really perform and write great by wanting to impress them. It lights a fire under you.

NIGE: Did you meet Neil Young?

IAN: Yeah I’ve met him loads, probably about ten times. He’s only once remembered who I was but why would he? But that was cool though. People say never meet your heroes. The worst that happened to me was when I supported Brian Wilson in Liverpool, which was a massive thrill. I went up to him after I’d played and said, “Thank you very much Mr Wilson for letting me open your show, great fan of your music blah blah blah thank you so much.” I went to shake his hand and he went, “Hello. Goodbye.” (condescending voice) I couldn’t listen to ‘The Beach Boys’ for months after that.

NIGE: What inspires you when you write lyrics and music and has that changed over the years?

IAN: I always try and put some life experience into it to make it real. Situations that have happened, good or bad, usually end up in songs. The thing that inspires me the most to write a song is when I hear someone else has just written a great song and it comes on the radio and I say, “I wish I would’ve written that.” Then you get really pissed off with yourself that you didn’t and set out to write one better and if you’re lucky you might write one as good or nearly as good as it. That’s what pisses me off about a lot of music today. About ten years ago I used to buy all the music by all the bands I’d read about and say how great it was and how it really inspired me. Today, when I do see these bands that people rave about, I think, “Am I getting old or is this just not very good.” It’s not as good as ‘Won’t get Fooled Again’ by ‘The Who’ you know.

NIGE: From someone who is younger, I know exactly what you mean and think the same way, it’s never going to be as good as anything from the 60s or 70s.

IAN: Well that was the renaissance period. When ‘Oasis’ try and sound like ‘Revolver’ by ‘The Beatles’, I think, well I can listen to ‘Revolver’, but I can understand that they are playing to a generation of kids where ‘Revolver’ is their dad’s music and this is their music. I always remember our manager in 1980-81 when we told him we’ve just seen a band called ‘Echo and The Bunnymen’ and I gave him a copy of the first album. I asked him what he thought a couple of days later and he said, “Sounds just like ‘The Doors’.” I didn’t know who ‘The Doors’ were at that point. My image was some fat, old, bearded guy who died in a bath and was a hippy, and my reply was, “Ew that’s old music!” You get a bit older and you get into it and go “Ah Ok” and when you get into ‘The Doors’, you end up getting into ‘Canned Heat’ and ‘Grateful Dead’ etc. But I kind of understand why I might sound like an old fart for saying the older stuff is the best, but you’re not old and you agree with me so there you go. You haven’t got a Marilyn Manson t-shirt on either. (I was wearing a Jim Morrison t-shirt...shock)

NIGE: Do bands ever come to you for advice?

IAN: Yeah a lot of bands in Liverpool. Some of them are really good but none of them seem to get anywhere, there are too many bands. When we started off, there were maybe three or four venues where you could play original material. Everywhere else was cabarets and working men’s clubs so it was really good to get a gig and it was a big deal. In Liverpool now, the amount of gigs that are on is like a festival every night and it’s difficult to take in. There are so many bands competing for a record deal. It’s not a bad thing but it’s a difficult thing, to keep up with too. My advice for those that ask is that, if you’re in it for money then stop now, but if you’re in it for the love of it and prepared for people to shit on you for a couple of years and get nowhere, sleep on floors and have five people watching you, but you do it for the love then carry on and you might have a chance. The problem we have now with a lot of young people, which we’ve seen over the last week (UK riots), is that we have a lot of disenfranchised kids who think you don’t have to do anything apart from be famous by kicking a ball or going on Xfactor, it’s laziness. A lot of people, guys and girls just want to be famous and I think that’s the problem. My advice for the bands is just to keep writing a lot of songs and get better with it. If you’re looking for a quick fix and just want to be a rock star dead quick, then you might want to do something else because it’s not going to happen.

NIGE: Especially in this day and age with the amount of bands around, you’re not going to get everyone coming to your gig straight away, it’s going to take longer.

IAN: Yes you’re right. I complained to a producer friend of mine who works at the BBC because they weren’t playing my record. This is a friend I’ve known for years and I thought, “fuck it I’m going to have a whinge, I’ve got nothing to lose.” He said that they get 8 hours a week of airtime and if they’re lucky they might get to slip in five or six records into a two hour show that they want to play. He told me they get a stack of CD’s a week of new bands who have money and a buzz behind them, but they have to go with whatever is at the top of the pile that is going to be a cool thing for the programme. They get something like 900 CD’s a week, and if yours is one of them it’s a complete lottery.

NIGE: Finally, what next then for the future?

IAN: Well I’m hoping that I’m going to do another record with ‘Crazy Horse’ next year. I’ve spoke to them and they’re up for it so we’re trying to pull that together. The plan is just to keep going, keep doing gigs, keep writing songs and never stop. If you stop then they’ve won. I’ve come this far and I can’t do anything else, no one’s going to give me a job at 50 and I’m not going to be a manager or work for a record company or any of that stuff. So it’s just to keep going.

www.ianmcnabb.com

Interview by Nigel Cartner 11/08/11
Photos by Matt Johnston