The interview: Ian McNabb

The Icicle Works with Ian McNabb, right
The Icicle Works with Ian McNabb, right
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The Icicle Works play Preston’s Blitz nightspot on October 24, leading MALCOLM WYATT to track down the band’s founder and lead singer Ian McNabb

Esteemed Liverpudlian singer-songwriter Ian McNabb flirted with pop stardom in the 1980s as frontman of The Icicle Works, and has since won critical acclaim as a solo artist.

And, as I sussed straight away, chatting with this Mercury Prize nominee, there’s a distinct lack of side to this amiable 54-year-old, just plenty of down-to-earth honesty.

Assuming I knew nothing, he launched into a career summary as I tried to subtly butt in and prove I knew a fair bit about his impressive back-catalogue.

Yet he was more self-deprecating than patronising.

While Love is a Wonderful Colour was The Icicle Works’ sole top-20 hit, they deserved more, not least with Birds Fly (A Whisper To A Scream), Hollow Horse, Evangeline and Motorcycle Rider. And that’s without mentioning his solo years.

I do it because I love it, I’m obsessed with it, and am pleased I still am

Ian, now based in Liverpool’s Newsham Park, started with a resume of his formative band days.

“We broke up in 1988, then I did another album in 1990 with Roy Corkhill, who was in Black, plus Paul Burgess, from 10cc, Mark Revell on guitar and Dave Baldwin on keyboards.

“We left it alone a long time, and I put my first solo album out in 1991. But in 2006 we marked the 25th anniversary of The Icicle Works.

“Chris Shorrock, the original drummer, has been busy playing with so many people, including The La’s, Oasis, World Party, Beady Eye and Robbie Williams, and Chris Layhe – although he’d baulk at me saying it – retired from music to do other things.

“But I wanted to do an anniversary, and if I couldn’t have those originals I was going to use others, so got Roy Corkhill on bass, Mathew Priest from Dodgy, who I’ve known since the early ‘90s, on drums, and Richard Naiff on keyboards, who I met while playing with The Waterboys on a couple of tours.

“We did that in 2006, which was successful, then again in 2011, and every few years I’ll take The Icicle Works out and play two-hours based on the five albums.”

The Icicle Works were initially seen as part of an early 1980s neo-psychedelia wave, hot on the heels of fellow Merseyside acts The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen. And 32 years after their biggest hit, they’re getting rave live reviews again.

“It’s going down really well. More people come to see me under that Icicle Works banner.

“We did pretty well, and they remember the name. And I’m not afraid of my past, like some.”

Not so long ago, Ian played the Ribble Valley, promoter Carl Barrow loving his work so much he called his events company Hollow Horse. And Ian’s clearly not averse to playing the rural circuit as well these days.

“I’ve no compunctions about where I play, so long as people turn up and I get paid! The music industry has changed dramatically.

“You don’t get the big record company or publishing advances, and don’t get a lot of money to tour.

“I’ve done it every which way. We got signed in the early ‘80s, an incredibly booming time for the industry, largely due to CDs and MTV. That’s really what got us going, pretty much lasting until the late-90s.

“You can almost see just where the internet made an impact, and I’m really glad I caught that last wave. Now it’s the new game.”

Ian, who published autobiography Merseybeast in 2008, made many friends en route, including Ian Broudie, first as an Icicle Works producer, leading to contributions to his fellow Liverpudlian’s Lightning Seeds recordings.

“We were on nodding terms, then became mates, and still are. I’ve co-written songs with him and sung on a few of his records. I’d call him The Pop Detective. He’d always find something commercial and appealing in the primitive scrawlings of whatever.”

But by his own admission, the last Icicle Works album – 1990’s Permanent Damage – sessions felt ‘more like a wake’.

“It was a funny time, a lot of stuff going on, people pretty drunk and the music reflecting that. Having said that, going out and playing these songs now, we play three songs off that album in the show, and the audience loves them. Time is the judge more than anything.

“We ended up doing just one album for Sony. It left a bitter taste. We did two tours and they were really well attended but the album wasn’t well received.

“Times were changing, that whole Manchester scene taking off. It was the beginning of something new. I was only 30, but might as well have been 50.

“I wanted to be a solo artist, ready to put it all behind me. I’d had enough and we’d sort of peaked.”

These days, Ian, married to his guitar and ‘born to rock’, lives with his 81-year-old mother.

“Everything is devoted to the music. If I did have kids, I’d probably have to be doing something else as well. I couldn’t survive just doing music. I’d have to teach or something.

“Every musician from my era that wasn’t a really big act does something else. Mathew teaches, Roy does tour managing, and Richard’s very happy working in Waterstone’s.”

That’s quite refreshing, and suggests you’re doing this for the right reasons.

“I’m doing it because I love it, I’m obsessed with it, and I’m very pleased I still am. A lot of people seem to go off the boil.

“It doesn’t feel particularly nostalgic to me standing on stage two and a half hours every night singing songs I wrote when I was in my early 20s.

“It’s a real challenge playing this stuff than anything I’ve written since. Everything’s in a slightly lower key and not as frantic now.

“I see it as a real affirmation that I’m still able to do it. There’s a lot of people who can’t hit the notes anymore.”

There have been some big names he’s featured with along the way, from Ringo Starr to The Waterboys’ Mike Scott, while Neil Young’s band Crazyhorse appeared on his second solo LP.

“We went to record it in the San Fernando Valley, California, and they then came to the UK and we did a bunch of shows, the last at Glastonbury. That was mind-blowing!”

Moments like that must make you wonder how it’s happened to this lad from Merseyside.

“Absolutely! I used to go around saying, ‘Jim fixed it for me’, but can’t really do that anymore, can I?”

The Icicle Works play Blitz, Preston, on October 24 (7.30pm), with support from Martin Bramah, previously with The Fall and Blue Orchids, and The Long Lost Band.

Advance tickets £13 from Action Records, Church Street, or from Blitz on Church Row. For online tickets try https://www.ticketline.co.uk/order/gateway/13309245 or http://www.wegottickets.com/event/330896