The Icicle Works
The new album, and the bits what made it.
Quaking hack Jon Lewin faces up to the Icicle Works over a copy of their new LP; lensman Paul Spencer holds their coats.
SO WHAT DO you do when an interview starts with the lead singer pointing his finger at you, saying, "I remember – you said that we were responsible for 'one of the most appalling live concerts ever televised'"?
What you do is ask the band about their new album...
The new Icicle Works LP was recorded in roughly six weeks at Amazon Studios in the group's home town of Liverpool.
CHRIS LAYHE (the charming and chatty bassist): "What we've normally done is go away to a residential studio – Rockfield in Wales, France – and lock ourselves away for a few months; we didn't want to do that this time, and it's gone a lot better. We recorded some, had a break, went to Japan, came back, recorded some more... it's more relaxed. It used to get prisonish – like Colditz."
The album was produced by Ian Broudie, who's well known for his connections with Liverpool bands like the Bunnymen. Although he comes from the same city as the Icicle Works, Broudie had not met the band before.
CHRIS SHARROCK (the quiet, but delightful and talented drummer): "Thing about him is he's like us – he's played in bands, like the Original Mirrors, and he knew what we wanted."
Ian Broudie was involved from the first rehearsal of the new songs, helping the group 'routine' the new material. The band would set up and play, while Broudie would stand there rubbing his chin, occasionally making a suggestion.
CHRIS L: "He's had the most input of any producer we've had – altering drum patterns, like on 'Hope Springs Eternal', little things like altering a verse. Ninety per cent of his suggestions were great ideas."
Broudie's status as a musician not only helped the Icicle Works with synthesiser and sequencing ideas, but it also gave them faith in his judgement.
CHRIS L: "He knows the score, y'know, so it was quite cool for him to say – 'I don't like that bit, try this or change it'. With some other guy you might just go fuck off."
Broudie and the band approach the recording process quite straightforwardly, recording the drums first, with guide bass and guide guitar, perfecting the drums, adding the bass, then the guitar, then the vocal. But one improvement over their established working habits has been to add the guide vocal sooner.
IAN McNABB (the moody singing guitarist and genius who's really – wot, me a creep? – very nice): "On this album, we've been doing the guide vocal with the guide guitar. That way we know if the song's really strong and doesn't need too much on it."
The more relaxed performances of the guides were kept in a couple of cases, the most notable being the first single from the album, 'Understanding Jane'. But what of the other nine tracks on this as yet untitled masterpiece?
The group's equipment varies little between the stage and the studio. Drummer Chris uses a five piece Ludwig kit – two mounted toms, bass, snare, and floor tom, with Paiste and Ufic cymbals. He added a hired Sonor snare for the recording. Bassist Chris has an aged Fender bass with a Jazz neck and a Precision body. His second bass is an Ibanez Roadster model, white with black edges.
CHRIS: "It's good, but not as good as the Fender. I've stuck an f-hole on the Ibanez, just cut it out of paper – looks great, and people keep asking me about this semiacoustic bass... I've always thought a semi-acoustic bass was great, but they don't do any good ones. Ibanez analogue delay on stage for effects."
Ian McNabb uses a ten year old Fender Telecaster live, as he swears by its unshakeable tuning.
IAN: "It's got a good clean sound, with a lot of bite to it, and it's got a lot of grit as well. I really am a Fender man these days, as I've got a Fender Strat as well. But on the LP nearly all the good guitar bits are done on my Gretsch Tenessean; I was using Broudie's which I think is a Chet Atkins – I wouldn't put the Gretsch in a live situation as they go out of tune so easily, and there's too many combinations of knobs and pickups. When you're singing, you just want a guitar that you can click on, and away you go."
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL is a slowish anthemic song with fine full rhythm guitar and a simple chorus.
IAN: "It's a good opening, actually written very much with America in mind. People always say we sound American – but I don't sing in a Minnesota accent, unlike Mike Scott from The Waterboys."
CHRIS L: "It's a bigger sound, a controlled heaviness."
IAN: "That's more reverb. That arpeggio guitar was probably a Fender, my Telecaster."
TRAVELLING CHEST — in true Icicle Works fashion, something completely off the wall; almost a folk song, with a lyrical arrangement inspired by The Byrds' "John Riley", and replete with brushes and banjo...
IAN: "It's actually an Emulator sample, which we sequenced."
CHRIS L: "And the string bass is a Mirage Ensoniq sample. I shouldn't have said that..."
IAN: "It's well keyboardy that track, but like they're all acoustic samples – there's the upright bass, the banjo, there's a harmonium in there too. And there's an acoustic guitar..."
CHRIS S: "...triggered off the bass drum..."
IAN: "...which was an RX11. But there is real guitar on it too."
CHRIS L: "We can do it live, though. I just play it on an ordinary bass – not fretless. I don't think I could play one, I'd probably be out of tune a lot... I like to have a go, but you always end up sounding like Mick Karn, Pino Palladino... a dated sound."
SWEET THURSDAY is poppier and more synthesised than we have come to expect from the Icicle Works, down to a stuttering sequence that reminds me of 'Land Of Make Believe'.
CHRIS L: "That repeated note is a guitar sample off a keyboard."
IAN: "We do that live now with a basic click track for Chris (Sharrock) to play from. You can do it three times in the sound check, but still go out of time on the night – like, total egg on our faces."
CHRIS S: "I played along with the click track in the studio on everything."
UP HERE IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND – A slow, guitary number, with a great noisy solo...
IAN: "Rickenbacker twelve string through a Rockman in stereo, and a Gretsch through Broudie's Roland Chorus amp for a real dirty sound, harmonised a bit and compressed to bring it right up front. That heavy solo is a Gretsch Country Gentleman, through an Acoustic G260 (which is mine) – about 120w into a 12in speaker, it's just great for live and dead reliable — through an HH VS100, and through something else as well. It was great, 'cos normally when you're doing a guitar part you get a long lead and sit in the control room. With that, you go in the studio, and just put everything on full – I had to wear two pairs of headphones to keep out the noise. That kind of thing you have to do in one take, because you just can't control it."
WHO DO YOU WANT FOR YOUR LOVE? A romantic ditty written, unusually for Ian McNabb, on a keyboard.
CHRIS S: "It's got real strings on it."
IAN: "'Sweet Thursday' and 'Who Do You Want' were the first two tracks we did with Ian Broudie, and he's well into strings. We just put like a chugging thing in. We were very conscious that we didn't want it to sound like last year – a Lloyd Cole/Bunnymen type thing. They're there just for the rhythmic feel."
WHEN YOU WERE MINE is the new full-bodied all-singing pop group, with thick synth riffs, and backing vocals, even. This was the only other song on the album not written on guitar.
IAN: "There was lots of stuff recorded that we didn't use – 'When You Were Mine' has ten keyboard parts on tape, though we only used three."
CHRIS L: "That's an Ian Broudie tactic. There's a lot of things that happen here and there. What we've done in the past is use things all the way through; with this album, something'll happen once, then you won't hear it again."
IAN: "The guitars on that are my Telecaster through a Rockman, a Gretsch, and an out-of-phase Fender. We were going to use a pedal steel, but there wasn't room; we've used brass on it before, live."
DON'T LET IT RAIN ON MY PARADE is lusher and more American sounding still in its combination of electric and acoustic guitars with chiming synth lines. It reminded me of the Walker Brothers, but with that typical Ian McNabb half tempo vocal in the chorus.
IAN: "That's a bit of a Cilia Black/"raindrops keep falling on my head" song, with that rhythm. It was meant to be a single."
TRUCK DRIVERS uses a heavy and ponderous guitar riff; Broudie's Gretsch again, with a bit of echo, for the solo, says Ian.
CHRIS L: "The marimbas are either an Ensoniq sample, or milk bottles filled with water."
IAN: "Some of those Mirage keyboard sounds are so good, though on the LP we mainly used an Emulator that OMD lent us, as they give much higher quality."
CHRIS S: "All the drums are real drums. We didn't use any triggered sounds."
IAN: "Not that we mind using them – 'Love Is A Wonderful Colour' had the snare drum from a Modern English album. Everyone does that – OMD told us they used this studio in America where Bowie recorded, which has this disc with 17 Let's Dance snare sounds on it. The only trouble with using triggered sounds on a track is that they already come with ambience – it's already been produced.
UNDERSTANDING JANE is a rock song in the classic sense of the phrase, which took less time to write than it does to listen to.
IAN: "I only wrote one verse and the chorus of 'Understanding Jane'... I wasn't really serious about it."
CHRIS L: "We went through it twice in rehearsal and Broudie said – 'yeah, that's it'. That's how we recorded it."
IAN: "While we do write deliberate singles, 'Understanding Jane' wasn't one. 'Up Here', 'Truck Drivers,' and 'Understanding Jane' were the only ones that weren't."
WALK WITH A MOUNTAIN, the last song on the album, is a bouncier more muted track with a drum machine behind it.
IAN: "That was done with a Roland TR808 – that was meant to be our clever Marvin Gaye thing, with that rhythm... like 'Sexual Healing'. But there's not really enough sex in it."
Now we seem to be getting on a bit better, let's talk about success: the Icicle Works traditionally sell between 20 and 30 thousand LPs. Not an enormous amount, but still quite respectable. So how come you never appear in the charts?
IAN: "Our sales are over a long period of time – our records chart at about 50, then drop out, but they do carry on selling over a long period of time. They're a lot longer lasting – they take a few listens to get into, but your appreciation lasts. But because we don't have critical approval, we don't get a lot of attention...
"That first album was like three young lads having a hit, then going 'let's make an album – wooh!'; and the second album was more "blessed with the cynical gaze", all that stuff; and this album is like a bit of both, and better than either of them."
Who am I to argue?
Interview by Jon Lewin
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