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Interview: Ian McNabb of The Icicle Works

Ian McNabb of Icicle Works
1 February 2020

Photo by Ian McNabb

Speaking from his home in Liverpool, England, Ian McNabb is engaging and gregarious as he discusses his long musical career. He’s best known for his work with The Icicle Works, the alternative rock band he fronted from 1980-1991 (though he has revitalized the band, off and on, since 2006). The group’s 1984 debut album, The Icicle Works, brought them Top 40 chart success in both the U.S. and the U.K. with the single “Whisper to a Scream” (as it was titled in the U.S. – it was called “Birds Fly” in the U.K.). They followed up with further hits in the U.K. with “Love Is a Wonderful Colour,” “Understanding Jane,” and “Evangeline.” McNabb has also maintained a highly prolific solo career, starting with his 1993 album Truth and Beauty. So far, he has released a dozen solo albums in all (as well as several albums of outtakes and rarities). His last two solo releases (2017’s Star Smile Strong and 2018’s Our Future in Space) are part of a trilogy, and McNabb says he plans to release the third album, Utopian, later this year. Whether he’s describing an upcoming project or a song from 35 years ago, McNabb seems equally happy to talk about it all.

It must be a bit tough, as a musician, to come from Liverpool – after all, The Beatles are a tough act to follow…

IAN MCNABB: Absolutely. I started making music in the early ‘70s. Then, when anybody from Liverpool wanted to try and write original material, you’d always be told, “Oh, The Beatles came from Liverpool – what’re you going to do?” It really hung over us. But then, when punk and New Wave hit in the late ‘70s, it destroyed all of that, and then we started having groups coming out of the city like Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark – there’s so many, and not one of them sounded anything remotely like The Beatles. We were taking our influences from other sources. And that made it okay, because we dipped into a different well.

Here in the U.S., most people will know your work because of “Whisper to a Scream”…

IAN MCNABB: The thing is that Icicle Works did really well [in America] for a very short period of time in the mid ‘80s. We had a really big radio hit with the song “Whisper to a Scream.” And then the record company rejected our second album because it didn’t sound like they thought it needed to sound. I was very disappointed that they wouldn’t release the record that was the big hit in the U.K., which is a song called “Love Is a Wonderful Colour.” So we lost a lot of ground – any chance of us having any kind of upward momentum was killed. There’s not really a lot you can do in America unless you’ve got the backing of a major record company. So we were screwed. But the music entered cult status, and there’s a lot of people who still like that music. And I’ve got a lot of fans who like my solo stuff, which I’ve been doing since 1992. Now and then, I come over and tour America.

What do you think it is about “Whisper to a Scream” that’s made it so enduring, in particular?

IAN MCNABB: I’d love to be able to tell you because I’d like ten more! That one felt like something a little different, at the time. I just sang this very simple melody that sounds very positive and very youthful and kind of timeless, going, [sings from the song’s chorus] “We are – we are – we are…” We’re not exactly quite sure what we are, but we know that we’re something. And it just really seems to have connected with people. I really do feel that anybody that gets a song gifted to them, that resounds through the ages, it’s an incredibly lucky thing.

What’s your songwriting process like?

IAN MCNABB: I always say, I don’t try and write songs. When I finish talking to you, if I was to go into my man cave and say, “Right – I’m going to write a song!” – it’s just not going to happen. What will happen is, I’ll write something, but it won’t be very good, because you have to wait until there’s a tear in the time-space continuum – it sounds like a cliché, but you have to be in the zone, and it’s like another dimension. And unless you’re in it, nothing’s going to happen. Then it calls you, and you can feel when it wants you – then everything flows really well and you’ll write some good stuff. So not trying to write songs is the way for me, and it seems to work. Also, it’s time in my schedule: I’m not married, I haven’t got any kids. And I’m a full-time carer for my mum who’s 85, but that’s nowhere near as bad as it sounds. So I have plenty of time [to write].

Now you’re about to play several U.K. shows. It seems you’re always expected to play certain songs – how do you feel about that?

IAN MCNABB: For a long time, it used to be, “You’ve got to keep doing new stuff, you’ve got to keep introducing new songs, it’s not all about playing the old stuff because it’s backward-looking.” But I think now we’ve entered a period [where] it feels like you’re celebrating something that is really special. People pay a lot of money and they want to hear those songs. If you play new ones, you know people don’t know them as well. And they listen to them, but they don’t have the emotional connection. And obviously, with me now, when I play those songs, I’ve got an emotional connection to them. I mean, I didn’t think I’d be singing them when I was nearly sixty. No. So you really appreciate the fact that those songs have been so good to you. It’s not a drag to play them. I’ll be honest, and I’m sure any artist will tell you the same thing: over the years, sometimes it’s a drag when you’re trying to get new things across and you know that people want to hear [old songs]. But now, it feels like old friends, and they’ve been so good to me, those songs. That’s what’s kept people coming to see us over the years. Those songs are the reason why we’ve got a roof over our heads. So I embrace it now, I really do. You’ll see some artists who are a little bit more cantankerous than I am, and they’ll say, “Oh, man – we don’t want to play that stuff, go home and listen to the record.” It’s like, do you know how much money they’ve paid to come and see you? It’s so expensive now, going to a show.

But of course, you’ve done more than Icicle Works. You’ve also had a prolific solo career. What made you decide the time was right to finish your trilogy now?

IAN MCNABB: I thought, this next record that I’m working on is my twentieth album, including the Icicle Works stuff. So my twentieth album in 2020, I thought that had a ring to it. It’s exciting to do. I’ve got all the songs written, but I haven’t had time to record it because I never stop doing shows.

What ideas and themes that you’re touching on with _Utopian?_

IAN MCNABB: Without trying too hard I’ve always been fairly prolific. I made Star Smile Strong a few years ago with the guys who I’ve been doing roadwork with for the past eighteen years, off and on. It came out really good and when we’d finished up our touring I went straight in the studio with my other friends, Cold Shoulder – my “pirate” band I like to call them – and knocked out Our Future In Space fairly quickly. I never try to write songs, I just wait for the portal to open. The portal kinda stayed open and a bunch of other songs came out and I figured, “Well, this feels like a running theme,” so decided I was in the middle of a trilogy. The last time that happened naturally was my first three solo records. The songs aren’t particularly connected or conceptual apart from the cosmic nature of the album titles. I feel I’m on a roll and my voice appears to have lost nothing in tone and range, bizarrely, so my idea is to just keep pushing while I’ve got it going on. You never know when your time’s up, do you? I’d like to leave a healthy and lengthy legacy, as obviously this stuff is going to be around for a lot longer than I am.

Has being a musician turned out the way you thought it would when you were first starting out?

IAN MCNABB: Back then, I just remember I wanted to be in a band, and I wanted to make albums and I wanted to do shows and I wanted to go to America because that’s where all the music I loved came from. And I did all that by the age of 23. So you don’t think past that. I mean, I remember thinking that you had until you were 27, because that’s when Jim Morrison died – that’s that way you think when you’re 18. So no, I didn’t think I’d be doing this now. I’m 60 in a year and that’s the point where you think, “So what do I do now?” And you know what? I’ll just carry on. Did I think that it would be like this? I mean, you’d probably think to yourself, “Well, if I’m gonna be doing this at sixty, I must’ve made it.” But there’s plenty of people who are older than me who go around playing bars every night, doing cover versions. So I’m glad I don’t have to do that. As Keith Richards says, “It’s good to be here – it’s good to be anywhere!”

Upcoming tour dates:
February 22 – Bannermans – Edinburgh, U.K.
March 6 – The Atkinson – Southport, U.K.
March 13 – Chemsford City Theatres – Chelmsford, U.K.
March 14 – Slaughtered Lamb – London, U.K.
March 20 – John Peel Centre for Creative Arts – Slowmarket, U.K.
March 21 – Foxlowe Arts Centre – Leek, U.K.
April 3 – The Parish – Huddersfield, U.K.
May 21 – Alexander’s Live – Chester, U.K.