Warm Music, Cool Thoughts
Iva Davies and Bob Kretschmer take a walkabout from the land of the Fairlight to talk to Tim Goodyer about a new LP, new technology, real singers and the ballet.
They may sound a little derivative, and they may not yet be a household name, but Australian duo Icehouse are making some stirring modern pop music, and they have a fair bit to say on the subject of technology, too.
Mention the name Icehouse to a musician, and you'll probably get one of three responses: (a) 'Hey Little Girl', (b) 'Oh yeah, another Ferry/Bowie ripoff', or (c) 'How does an Aussie get a name as Welsh as Ivor Davies?'.
Well, for a start it's Iva Davies who's the driving force behind the Australian outfit that had a hit back in 1983 with the single 'Hey Little Girl'. And yes, his voice does bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Bryan Ferry and David Bowie.
It may seem that things have been a little quiet for Iva and Icehouse over the last couple of years, but the truth is that more promotional activity surrounds the export of lager from Australia than music, and if you don't have your finger on the pulse, you can lose track of what an Aussie act is up to very easily.
But far from being idle, the intervening three years have seen the release of Icehouse's third long-player, Sidewalk, ballet and film scores, and extensive touring that's included a support slot to none other than Bowie himself.
To bring the story well and truly up to date, Davies and fellow Iceman Bob Kretschmer recently took a couple of days out from an American tour to talk to E&MM about album number four.
So it is, then, that I find myself in the foyer of London's classy Kensington Hilton Hotel, waiting for the two Australians to put in an appearance. And it's two Australians I get, except that one of them is manager John Woodroffe, Kretschmer arriving slightly later.
'We ran up a £300 bill last night at a Russian restaurant', Davies explains. 'And that was just the vodka!' The story is corroborated by Woodroffe and the interview begins — somewhat cautiously.
Although the LP Measure For Measure is only just available here in the UK, it's been climbing up the American album charts for a couple of months now. It's the first joint songwriting venture for Davies and Kretschmer, more than any previous Icehouse release, it displays a wide variety of styles and influences.
'Bob and I locked ourselves in a studio in Eastonville, which is a suburb of our city, for about three months. That was kind of falling down stairs into the studio each morning and longing for bed. We kept fairly civilised hours actually, but it was a bit like being on another planet. We had a lot of fun trying different methods of writing on each song. I don't think we've actually worked out how to write yet, because there hasn't been one process which has been the same for more than one song; it's been like starting from scratch every time.
'It seems like an incredible amount of time when you make an album: three months of recording and then whatever in the mixing, but it's probably not, in most people's terms. The two producers involved had both come out of projects that had lasted two years, so it must have been like a long weekend in comparison.'
Said two producers are Rhett Davies and David Lord, the former well-known for his work with Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry, the latter for his production assistance on Peter Gabriel's fourth album.
'They actually worked independently of each other, except for the mixing process', explains Davies. I think it was a bit of an education for them, both working on something like this, because we were spending three weeks with one of them and then moving over to the other for the next three weeks, and they have completely different workstyles. We did five songs with Rhett and five with David, but somewhere along the line they crossed over. I think both producers were intent on extracting the real essence of the style, concentrating on vocal performances and stuff like that.'
We are soon joined by the errant Kretschmer. Contrary to expectations, he is cheerful and coherent. Perhaps Russian vodka isn't all it's cracked up to be...
Both Davies and Kretschmer are primarily guitarists, so it's not surprising there's a lot of guitar in evidence on Measure For Measure. But both parties favour the unpredictability of composing on a less familiar instrument.
"Our writing became completely random, to the point where we were putting the Fairlight in Record, and then running around for 20 seconds to find something to play."
'It would be nice to be able to sit down with a guitar and a couple of lyrics and write a song', confesses Davies. 'I have done that on the odd occasion but generally it's a case of starting with some kind of sound. Quite often that sound will get ditched along the way, but more often than not, that's the best place to start.'
The vast compositional resources currently on offer to the synth player make the choice of keyboards as a songwriting aid an obvious one for Icehouse.
'Generally I start on keyboards because I find it's more visual and also very logical. I sometimes find myself falling into old habits on the guitar which I like to avoid. I like the fact that I make mistakes on a keyboard, and more often than not I keep these unintentional accidents. I guess I use the Fairlight mostly, but I like the Prophet 5 for harmonies. I use the Fairlight as a sort of sketchpad for arranging and editing.
'For this album, we set up our own oblique strategies to get random things to happen — these usually involved huge amounts of alcohol! In the end it deteriorated into being completely random, to the point where we were putting the Fairlight in Record, and then running around for 20 seconds to find something to bang or play.'
Kretschmer: 'Lyrically we got all these little bits together that I'd written down, and Iva would sing a line, and then I sang a line whilst glancing at this mess of lyrics. You should hear the extended version of that!'
Davies: 'The strange thing about doing things like that is that you think you're dealing with a random process when you're not. What you're dealing with is your method of selection at that point in time, which is dictated to by a certain frame of mind or whatever. The result is that even though the lyrics were scattered on the table, the selection made sense. It's an interesting way of doing things... one of the experiments that worked.
'There are many ways to write a song and we're not saying that we'd use one method exclusively, but if you start off with a guitar you'll get a completely different song than if you do it with this method.
'I always write onto tape, building up from there. We did all these songs in this way and ended up with 24-track demos, so we'd already spent quite a lot of time recording when we came to London. There had to be a good reason for doing it all again: we had to improve the arrangements and so on and particularly the sounds. Starting off with the sound that was on the demo, which functioned perfectly well, we looked hard at it to see if we could find anything better.'
It's easy to lose the essence of an idea through overworking it, but Davies is happy this hasn't been the case with Measure For Measure.
'That was probably my biggest fear, but I guess in some ways Bob, myself, David and Rhett were a kind of a foil for each other. It drove me crazy some of the time, not being able to see the necessity of doing all this. I always sat and watched, though — I had to remind myself what we were doing. On the other hand, the performance of the vocals and guitars were the counterbalances. That's why the album is called Measure For Measure because of this balance: two producers working in totally different styles, and Bob and myself working so differently, too.'
As Australian music envoys, Davies and Kretschmer have perpetuated the national drinking myth with some panache. They've also set about promoting their second national export — the Fairlight CMI — with similar enthusiasm.
'I've been working with a Fairlight for two and a half years now', says Davies. 'They're built not very far away from where I live, so when they need to test out some software, I have a look at it and then ring them up and tell 'em it doesn't work. They're always de-bugging programs and they're going through this stage with the Series III at the moment, but I haven't actually got my hands on one of those — yet!
"People say synths are sterile, but if you pick up a violin, which is considered to be a 'human' instrument, you can choose to make it sound like a machine if you want to."
'The first time I used a Fairlight was to do the soundtrack to Russell Mulcahy's first feature film, Razorback, which is about a huge killer pig...
'There's a simple logic about the Fairlight, and I think that's a real Australian trademark — not the simplicity, but the fact that it's so very logical to use. It was designed by a couple of computer people in league with a keyboard player. He really was there the whole way going "well I don't understand this bit..." or "can you make it do this..?"
'There's still no other practical machine for people who aren't mechanically minded. It's really just like using four or five video games, it's not necessary to be a computer buff to understand it.
'I have a theory about instruments: there's only one real natural instrument, and that's your voice. A piano is just a box with strings in it. I don't use synthesisers any differently than I do those sorts of normal instruments. People often say they're sterile, but if you pick up a violin, which is considered to be a "human" instrument, you can choose to make it sound like a machine or not.'
Kretschmer: 'If you use a certain sort of sequencer, it's going to dictate what the song is going to be like. If you want to use that, you can, it's available. I like guitar bands where you don't have to use all this wonderful machinery. Iva and I both like good songs, and hi-tech has never impressed me as being the most desirable thing. But certainly, using the Fairlight as we did for the ballet and the album, we could not have got that amount of material together in the time we had, so they're great for that sort of thing, they're great tools.'
Davies: 'I like machines you can trick. Unless you can throw a spanner in the works and get the thing to hiccup, it doesn't really interest me. Quite a few times, what we ended up doing was setting up a situation where the Fairlight would fool itself. There are simple ways to do that: for example, creating a piece of music with a certain set of instruments and then loading a completely random set of instruments which have nothing to do with it. It's like writing a set of drum rhythms and then loading a set of violins instead of the drum voices — the pitch that the drums have is nothing to do with what is going to sound good harmonically with the new sounds. You don't know what harmony you're going to have. Sometimes you get a cacophony and sometimes you come up with something amazing.
Kretschmer: 'It's good and spontaneous because if you make a mistake you can end up saying "well, that sounds great". But then Iva's got a great knowledge of music. He's a trained musician, so he can sort out what's going on harmonically as well. You really have to know your music to get full use of all the instruments. In the hands of someone else, it's just not used properly.
'The other interesting thing about the Fairlight is it doesn't matter what you set up initially, as long as you have something going — even if it's a drone or a thump or a clang. So long as you can work with it, that's enough. With quite a lot of the songs that we wrote this time, we discarded what we'd originally set out with. 'Angel Street' had these incredible sitars and ended up with this kind of Beatles thing. We just removed what we started off with.'
It's curious that Davies quotes the human voice as the only 'natural' instrument, and yet leaves his own vocal style open to criticism of being derivative. It's obviously an argument he's encountered before, as his reply is as swift as it is considered.
'I've had this criticism of sounding like Ferry with 'Hey Little Girl', but I think my primary task is to extract the individuality out of the way I can sing. Having a lot of respect for Rhett and David, I followed their suggestions, and I think the result of that with this record is fairly obvious: I don't seem to sing as derivatively as I have done in the past.
'I guess there are a lot of people who don't sing these days. The people you spoke about are two singers, and perhaps to that extent there are unwritten similarities. I've been compared to Frank Sinatra, but he's a singer so what can I say...?
'It comes down to the nuts and bolts of singing really, because my voice has grown up a lot in five years, if only from the amount of live work we've done. It's interesting, going back over the earlier recordings and hearing how weak the voice was and how it's improved. When you talk about someone like Bowie, you talk about a very strong voice.
'I think you can apply vocal style to the kind of context it's in as well. The diversity of the album's material means that some of the songs are quite soft, and the requirement for that is not an overriding style. On the other hand, some of the songs are really powerful and the style changes depending on that context — that's always been my guideline. Variety is very important to me because I find it difficult to listen to a whole album of anybody. It's far easier for me to listen to the radio — I've got to have a bit of this and a bit of that.'