It was the morning after the night before when I called Ian McNabb, and it was just sinking in that it wasn’t just a bad dream. Boris Johnson really was the new Prime Minister, as the Cold Shoulder and Icicle Works frontman confirmed to me.
“You’ve woken up in reality. I’m afraid it wasn’t a nightmare. But let’s all go backwards together. My attitude is that if we’re going to hell in a bucket, let’s party!”
That was a few weeks ago now, yet we somehow continue to plunge further in reverse gear towards some form of 21st century purgatory, initial whispers turned into screams. Yet Ian carries on regardless, having long since finalised details of two tours – one for his most recent group project and another for the band with whom he first broke through.
A full-time carer for his 85-year-old mother between live and studio outings, he’s made three Cold Shoulder LPs alongside Andy Lord-Ashton (bass/vocals) and Christopher Kearney (guitar/vocals). But while Nicholas Kilroe drummed on 2013’s Eclectic Warrior and 2015’s Krugerrands – and is set to feature live with the band soon – the most recent release by this Liverpool-based psych rock outfit, Our Future In Space, features Steve ‘Smiley’ Barnard (From the Jam, Robbie Williams, Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, The Mock Turtles, The Alarm), introduced to the outfit by mutual friend, late BBC Wales DJ, Alan Thompson, to whom the latest LP is dedicated.
Our Future In Space also includes a co-write with R.E.M guitarist, Peter Buck on ‘Aquamarine’. And it’s an impressive record all round, as you can find out yourself if you catch Ian out on the road and snap up a copy, either during an Icicle Works jaunt from late-September to mid-November (and according to the Dyserth Courier, ‘You’d be a c*nt to miss it!’), or through a Cold Shoulder date in their home city in early December.
And as the main man himself put it on his Facebook page about the latter show, “There’ll be tunes from all the Cold Shoulder albums and other stuff from my solo oeuvre. Just so you know though, we’re not playing any Icicle Works songs. OK? Don’t want you to be disappointed if that’s what you’re expecting. Been a long time coming this. We’re buzzed about this. It will be self-indulgent, no hits, too loud, and will go on way too long.”
It’s fair to say Cold Shoulder focus on the heavier side of Ian’s music – ‘stripped-down, as-recorded-live two-guitar, bass and drums, somewhat reminiscent of his mid-‘90s work with Crazy Horse’. So how would he compare Cold Shoulder as opposed to the band with which he broke through?
“Well, there’s a line of thinking that is a little lazy, but I suppose it’s a fair comparison – they’re my Rolling Stones and the Icicle Works are my Beatles.”
“Yeah, there’s obviously always going to be that element as well. Basically, I do many records and many gigs, and a lot of them are solo acoustic shows, and then every 18 months we get the Icicle Works machine rolling and play all the tunes people want to hear.
“I’ve done three albums with Cold Shoulder now, and a lot of the fans are saying, ‘Why don’t you do any gigs with them?’ I say it’s because I’m not sure how many would be interested in coming if we weren’t playing any Icicle Works stuff. We’d just play stuff from those albums and maybe a couple of tracks from my solo work. It’s a more niche market.”
Maybe those songs just need to be heard a little wider.
“Well yeah, that’s why we’re taking a bit of a gamble taking these gigs. Also, we’re a jam band. We’re guitar players and can be a little self-indulgent, to say the least. It’s also a lot scruffier and I won’t say it’s a lot louder than the Icicle Works, but it’s certainly its dirty cousin!”
Funnily enough, I used that very word putting together some questions, thinking the track ‘Reeperbahn’ has a real AC/DC dirty blues feel.
“We were playing that the other day. There’s definitely a bit of that. As well as a bit of Faces. The Icicle Works were a pop rock band, more pop than rock if you like. This is just down and dirty, another outlet for me and a different way of playing. I think it’s really important to have that.
“What I would like in the future is if we could establish the Cold Shoulder thing. Although to be honest I don’t really care if people don’t enjoy it … because I do! But then I’d have my three strands – my solo acoustic work, my Icicle Works stuff and my Cold Shoulder thing. And that’s important to me because I don’t tour overseas anymore.
“You see bands tour, then won’t see them again for a year, because they’ve gone off around Europe or North America. I don’t do that, but if I want to keep playing regularly, I need to do that, not least as sales of records don’t exist anymore.
“Now we’ve done three albums, so I think that’s enough to do a decent two-hour set. I would never go out and play anything less than that. I’m not a new act, so wouldn’t come on and just play an hour. People are used to seeing me play for a long time. And they can always leave if they don’t like it.”
“He’s one of my great heroes, and how many different bands has he played in? He seems to have settled down now with Promise of the Real, who seem to be his full-time band, and evidently they can play anything from his catalogue, which Crazy Horse can’t.
“I’m a little miffed about that because Crazy Horse are friends of mine and this is their 50th anniversary, so hopefully he’ll do something with them. Possibly because they’re all so old now … the insurance premium must be huge. But the way Neil Young hops around from band to band has always been an inspiration to me. I think that keeps you fresh.”
Speaking of inspirations, I loved your take on Bruce Springsteen’s latest single, ‘There Goes My Miracle’.
“Oh, you’ve heard that, have you? About 10 years ago Bruce recorded a single, ‘Girls in their Summer Clothes’ and people were sending me messages, saying, ‘Bloody hell, I thought I heard you on the radio!’
“Bruce seems to have this voice when he’s not doing his ‘Down at the penitentiary …’ and ‘They’ve closed the oil refinery‘ thing, and it’s very similar to mine. I got a kick out of that, and we’re doing a new album at the moment and said, ‘Let’s knock off a version for a laugh’. We did a rough mix, put it up, and maybe it’ll end up somewhere, or maybe it won’t.”
Do you think Bruce has had word of it yet?
“I very much doubt it. People like to fantasise that he’s heard The Icicle Works, but I think it’s pure coincidence.”
Maybe though. He’s always been a keen student and a fan of music from this side of the Atlantic.
“Well, that’s a fabulous notion for me to hold in my head. The thing that’s really odd is that he uses all the same words that I use. In ‘Girls in Their Sumer Clothes’ he was going on about bicycles and on this single he’s singing ’That was my miracle’, while the cover of his album is a horse, something I’ve always obsessed with.
“It is a very funny thing, and I just wanted to mark the moment.”
A respectful nod to everything good in the name of guitar rock in the ‘70s?
Speaking of which, on Our Future in Space, ‘Medicated Emma’ has a Sex Pistols-like riff in there.
“Oh God, and a few other things! It’s a direct rip-off of about seven songs.”
Well, there’s refreshing honesty for you. I see it more as a fan’s tribute to a sound and era you loved.
“Yeah, it’s in the open G key, so as soon as you hit the chord you either sound like the Faces or the Stones. I’ve also managed to make it sound a bit like ‘Hammer To Fall’ by Queen, although I’m not quite sure how that happened!”
I mentioned the Pistols, and Glen Matlock was a big Faces fan.
“Yeah, I suppose one of the things about the Our Future in Space album is that the one I made before was a very pleasant listen and didn’t really rock at all. It was all very acoustic, with lots of string arrangements. So I wanted the first four tracks on this album to pummel you to death, really come out of the corner fighting.”
But with your melodic self still in there.
“I’ve always got to have a bit of melody. I don’t mind shouting a bit, but it’s got to have a melody. I’m not one of those guys who can sing like Bon Scott.”
That said, I could hear Brian Johnson having a go at ‘Reeperbahn’.
“Well, if you mention in your piece all those songs are available …”
It’s now 35 years since the debut Icicle Works LP, and 44 years since your first forays into playing in bands. How did that all start?
“I was out with mi’ Mum on a Friday afternoon in Liverpool city centre in 1975, looking in Frank Hessy’s window, the guitar shop, before I had a proper electric guitar – I just had a copy. This advert read ‘lead guitarist wanted for vocal/instrumental band. My mother grabbed hold of me, wrote the number down and said, ‘You’re going for that!’ That was for a band called Young World.
“The Icicle Works didn’t even meet each other until 1981. Yeah, I’ve been doing it a long time now. And these anniversaries start to scare you after a while.”
It’s possible to schedule a living around such anniversaries these days, I should imagine.
“Well, we all love anniversaries. It kind of gives you something to hang a few dates on. It used to all be about looking forward and new music, and I do believe that to be true, but we’re now in a phase where ticket prices and going to gigs is so expensive. If people are paying £25 up to £50 and even more when you get to the heritage gig malarkey, you want to turn up and hear two hours of songs you absolutely love. Days of playing two oldies then seven tracks off your new album, that’s gone.”
So it could be the milk train home for anyone who comes into the big cities to see you play nowadays.
“Yeah, rock’n’roll’s so long in the tooth now and things have changed so much. The world’s a different place, and those songs have become classics now. It’s not just nostalgia to play them.”
At least you’re not tied to getting the original band back together. You kind of reinvented the Icicle Works line-up on returning in to the live circuit in 2006, alongside Roy Corkill (bass, who also served from 1988-90), Richard Naiff (keyboards) and Mathew Priest (drums).
“Reinvented is a good way of saying it. The original line-up wasn’t going to happen. One of the reasons being that I never got on particularly well with the bass player. We weren’t enemies but weren’t particularly friends.
“Chris Sharrock is one of the biggest drummers in the world now, currently playing with Noel Gallagher. We’re still friends and he tells me he doesn’t want to do it, although he may consider it in the future. He’s one of the top session drummers in the world, always busy, so the idea of him coming back to do a tour with little old me seems a bit far-fetched. Also, he tells me there’s no way he could play that early Icicle Works stuff again, because it’s all too energetic. But Mathew is able to do it.”
That’s July 2015 WriteWyattUK interviewee Mathew Priest, best known for his work with Dodgy. And what a flamboyant player, his love of Keith Moon fairly obvious to those who catch him live and on record. As for original bass player Chris Layhe, I seem to recall Ian saying he’s more or less retired from playing these days.
“Yeah, he’d probably hate that term, but … We haven’t spoken for a long time, and it’s like, do you really want to go out with your first wife again? Because that’s what it’s like.”
Remind me how The Icicle Works came into being.
“After years of doing cabaret, about five years playing the working men’s club circuit in the North West, I put an advert in the paper. I already had Chris Sharrock. We played together in a couple of bands. We first met when he was nine, playing that circuit back then if you can believe that. Incredible!
“But we had an ad for a bass player in the Liverpool Echo and Chris Layhe was the only guy who turned up! It probably said, ‘Bass player wanted for new wave, post-punk three-piece rock band, influences – Echo & the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes’. We were going for that type of thing.
“It was all looking forward, and a new way of doing things. It was only later that we slipped back into playing the stuff that came before 1981 and all the ‘60s and ‘70s stuff we were very much into.”
Were you an Eric’s regular in those seminal days when The Clash and other influential punk bands came through?
“No, I’m 18 months younger than (Ian) McCulloch and (Julian) Cope. That doesn’t sound a lot, but it’s absolutely huge when you’re 17 and they’re 19. I was too young for Eric’s, technically. I came along after that. When I was the age to go to Eric’s it was all closed down. I missed all that – the Pistols, The Damned, The Stranglers. I bought all the records though. I knew what was going on.”
Speaking of records, have you still got your own copy of The Icicle Works’ debut, the ‘Ascending’ EP?
“Sadly no. But I know people who have copies and they do copies on CD and pass them around to the fans. I was never a great hoarder. I gave everything away, and don’t really regret it. I’ve got enough crap blocking up the house as it is!”
It’s been 11 years since the Merseybeast autobiography came out. Is a reprint in order? Last time I checked they were retailing at scary prices.
“There is a reprint in order, and an update, plus an audio version which I’m very proud of – me reading it. And I’m half-way through a second volume, which is going to be unsparing. I was a little bit too nice in the first one. I thought people would stop talking to me, but they stopped talking to me anyway, so fuck it!”
Going back to anniversaries, it’ll be 45 years now since your live solo debut, at Fairfield Conservative Club, east of the city of Liverpool. Is that venue still there?
“It’s just around the corner. And guess what – it’s flats, just like everything else. I wished they’d turn a few more Conservative Clubs into flats, mind.”
As there’s a track on Our Future in Space called ‘Supermoon’, and this summer saw the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, I’m thinking you’d have been nine when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
“I was eight, and Mum and Dad dragged me out of bed at four in the morning to get me to watch it. And I’ve never really recovered from that or seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was seven.
“When we grew up – the children of the Apollo generation – it was all terribly exciting, so I’ve been glued to all this 50th anniversary stuff going on.
“But it was all so incredibly expensive to do something where effectively blokes walked round a bit then came back, when the money could go to so many better things. It’s a shame it stopped though. As soon as we hit the ‘70s it was like, ‘What was all that about?’”
Are there new Ian McNabb records on the way?
“I’ve got a new album started – my 20th studio album if you include The Icicle Works. It’s called Utopian and should be out next year. I’m about five tracks in.”
Recorded at home?
“God, no! I treat my home like my home. I think it’s really important to go away and do that stuff. I did have a 16-track studio here about 20 years ago, but used to get up and feel really depressed because I felt I couldn’t just loaf around. I had to go downstairs and do something.”
Instead, he works with friend and producer Kieron Bell, the latest recording happening in a studio called On Demand on the Wirral.
“I think it’s really important to get your stuff together, go out, get to a studio, work there, come back.”
Will there ever be a sixth Icicle Works album?
“Quite a few people have said, ‘Why don’t you call your next album The Icicle Works?’ Maybe more people would be interested in it and it might get a little more publicity. But I put The Icicle Works to bed in 1990.
“Also, I feel that would kind of negate all the solo work I’ve done, as if to say, ‘OK, this is more important than anything that’s got Ian McNabb on the label. Which is not the case. I’m quite happy with where it is. And I think that’s where it should stay.”
There’s an impressive array of people you’ve collaborated with on projects over the years. Anyone you’d like to add to the list?
“I’m not a great collaborator. I like to work on my own. I don’t mind playing other people’s music in their bands, but I’d be like a jobbing musician. I’m not really good at sitting down with somebody else and writing a song. It kind of gets in my way when somebody else is there.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’ve written with Ian Broudie and also Ralph Molina from Crazy Horse, but we don’t sit in the same room. He (Ralph) just sent me some lyrics and I put music to it. That’s a lot easier. But if somebody wanted to collaborate with me who I greatly respect, I’d be up for doing it.
“I get asked to do co-writes, where a publisher or record company signs a young artist who’s fairly pretty without any songwriting experience and they want me to go into a studio and write with them, but don’t want you to write for them. They want their artist to have half the publishing and they can get 25% of that. I’m very wary about any of that stuff.
“But if anyone I really love and respect wanted to do anything with me, I’d have to look at that.”
To catch up with an October 2015 Ian McNabb feature/interview on this website, head here.
Icicle Works dates: Newcastle, O2 Academy 2 (Friday, September 27th), Sheffield Plug (Saturday, September 28th), Clitheroe The Grand (Friday, October 4th), Farncombe St John’s Church (Saturday, October 5th), Cardiff Globe (Friday, October 11th), Southampton Engine Rooms (Saturday, October 12th), Cottingham Civic Hall (Friday October 18th), Norwich Arts Centre (Saturday, October 19th), Derby Flowerpot (Friday, October 25th), Douglas (Isle Of Man) Villa Marina (Saturday, October 26th), Bristol Thekla (Friday November 1st), Birmingham O2 Academy 2 (Saturday, November 9th), Leeds Brudenell (Friday, November 15th).
Cold Shoulder date: Liverpool Arts Club (Saturday, December 7th).