Interview: Ian McNabb – part 1
Published on January 26th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
He’s one of Liverpool’s – nay, Britain’s – greatest and most prolific songwriters, he’s played and/or recorded alongside the likes of Ringo Starr, Crazy Horse, Ian Broudie, Terry Hall, The Waterboys and Noel Gallagher, supported Brian Wilson, counted recent Rocksucker interviewee Mathew Priest as his drummer until he was reclaimed by Dodgy, went on the lash (if not the lam) with Joe Walsh, Todd Rundgren, Nils Lofgren and Dave Edmunds, and he once spent five seconds with Marianne Faithful’s head in close proximity to his crotch, as detailed in his tremendously entertaining autobiography Merseybeast. So, who is he?
If you’re reading this, then chances are you already know very well who Ian McNabb is, and in many cases may have done so since his erstwhile band The Icicle Works first rose to prominence in the early ‘80s alongside fellow “cosmic Scousers” Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. Those heady days paved the way for a largely underappreciated yet immensely fruitful solo career, including a Mercury nomination for his 1994 album Head Like a Rock and a rich vein of recent form that has yielded the alternately gloomy/groovy pop goldmine of 2005’s Before All of This and the soulful splendour of 2010’s aptly titled Great Things.
Rocksucker had the honour of being granted a telephone audience with the great man last week, just as he was about to master his brand new studio album Little Episodes. Our chat proved to be the first of a double-header of interviews with mercurial Merseysiders – stay tuned for Ian Broudie, folks – but for now, it is our privilege to reproduce for you the following conversation with the great Ian McNabb, interspersed with a selection of our favourite songs of his for good measure…
Ian McNabb – “Heydays”
What can you tell us about Little Episodes?
I just decided that I should do another album, because I wasn’t going to do one until later on in the year, but then I thought, “I’ll just do one over Christmas.” I hadn’t written anything for ages so I tore a hole in the space-time continuum, a bunch of songs popped out and I’ve used all of them. I went in the studio a week after I’d written all the songs, put them all down, mixed them all and I’m going to master it this week. I think it’s the fastest turnaround I’ve ever done.
Is it more acoustic-based, or one of your rockier records, or…?
It’s largely acoustic but there’s bass, drums and a bit of electric on there. It’s quite difficult to describe because when you say “acoustic” people think it’s going to be something really mellow, but it’s got walls of acoustics and loads of backing vocals on. Some of the vibes on it remind me of This Is the Sea by The Waterboys – you know, very uplifting and lots of acoustic guitars – and it’s got plenty of bells and whistles on it, yeah. The songs are really good and there aren’t any widdly-woddly solos on it or anything like that, it’s all really concise; there are twelve tracks on it and it just comes in at forty minutes, so I’m made up with that.
Was it self-produced?
I did it with the guy I did my last record with, Ciaron Bell, who actually cut his teeth as Atomic Kitten’s producer, would you believe. [Rocksucker says: he also wrote Blue’s Eurovision entry – see the last line of this article for one of the most underwhelming pieces of journalism ever undertaken.] He’s got a real pop sensibility which is an interesting mix with my sort of troubadour style, and he’s made it into something that I wouldn’t have done; it’s a bit more commercial, if you like – not that that’s what I was going for – because there are lots of harmonies and it’s probably not quite as subdued as I’d have had it.
There was a rumour going round on the message board on your site last year that you were going to go on tour with Crazy Horse again. Was there any truth in that?
Well, the plan is to do that – we were going to do an album and some gigs over here – but they can’t commit to anything because they don’t know what Neil Young’s doing; he’s gone quiet, and when he goes quiet it usually means that he’s going to ring them up out of the blue and say, “We’re going on tour.” I didn’t want to book studio time or live dates only for them to say they couldn’t do it because they were going on tour with Neil Young, so I just left that and as soon as they get any kind of indication of what’s going to happen we’ll probably do something. It was just too much of a risk this time, and obviously Neil’s got dibs, hasn’t he?
Can’t argue with Neil.
No, I wouldn’t like to!
Ian McNabb and Crazy Horse – “Fire Inside My Soul” (live at Glastonbury ’94)
You must get asked a lot what Neil Young is like in person, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask again…
I’ve met Neil Young probably about half a dozen times and he’s always been fine. To be honest, I don’t really think he knows what’s going on. It took me about four times of meeting him before I could go up to him and he’d say, “Hey Ian, how’re you doing?” But he’s a legend, isn’t he? I think he’s got a bit shorter; he’s kind of hunched over these days, but then he is cracking on. First time I met him he was a towering 6ft, and now I’m sure he’s only 5’6. It’s the weight of that bloody Les Paul guitar. (Laughs)
At least he’s been pleasant to you, unlike Brian Wilson… (In this interview with Mudkiss, Ian said: “People say never meet your heroes. The worst that happened to me was when I supported Brian Wilson in Liverpool, which was a massive thrill. I went up to him after I’d played and said, ‘Thank you very much Mr Wilson for letting me open your show, great fan of your music blah blah blah, thank you so much.’ I went to shake his hand and he went, ‘Hello. Goodbye.’ I couldn’t listen to The Beach Boys for months after that.”)
Yeah, I think I timed that one wrong. I went up to him just before he went onstage, but my friend went up to him five minutes after the show, said exactly the same thing and got invited into the dressing room for a glass of wine and photos! Maybe he was stressed before going onstage, I don’t know. I just couldn’t help going up to him though, I was excited. I couldn’t listen to his records for a few weeks afterwards because I was pissed off, but you can’t stay off The Beach Boys for too long, can you?
Have you got a favourite Beach Boys album?
Ooh, good question. I always really loved Holland; I know it’s not a very ‘Brian’ album but I just really like it. I actually love Mike Love’s stuff on it; he could be quite annoying with that squeaky voice, but on Holland he’s singing in a lower register. I really like Blondie Chaplin’s voice on the two songs he sings on it. No-one ever mentions Holland – they always go on about Pet Sounds and the usual ones – but I really like Holland, and I really like Surf’s Up as well.
Sunflower too, to complete the holy trinity of early ‘70s Beach Boys albums!
That’s a great album, yeah.
Do you know yet which festivals you might play this summer?
We’re just kind of looking at that now. I’m not going to use the same band as I usually use because obviously Mathew’s doing his Dodgy thing now and it’s looking really promising. I’m made up for them, they’re getting played and there’s a bit of a buzz, so I don’t think I can use him. My keyboard player Richard has just got a job at Waterstones in Brighton so it’s difficult to get him, and Roy my bass player is off tour managing for nine months, so I’ve had to find another band. I think I’ve got one together. You can’t really do festivals solo acoustic because you get drowned out by the other stages. I did one at GuilFest once while Simple Minds were playing on the stage next to me. Never again.
So yeah, I think I’ve got myself a band together, but I don’t really know yet which festivals we’ll play at. I’d imagine we’ll probably do the smaller, more family-orientated festivals, which there seems to be a lot more of now. When you play at Glastonbury and places like that, they expect you to do it for petrol money, unless you’re the headliner. You have to ask everybody to turn up but not really pay for anything, which is a bit weird. This is the first week I’ve had the chance to get stuck in to [thinking about festivals] because I’ve been doing the album.
Speaking of solo acoustic performances, you’ve said that you like a bit of danger when it comes to preparing – or not preparing, as the case may be – a set list. How does it make you feel when people shout out requests?
Well, I’ve got a big book on my music stand with a hell of a lot of lyrics in, because there are so many songs now and I like to veer off the beaten track a bit, so if you shout out something and I’ve got the words to it then usually I’ll do it. That’s the beauty of doing solo shows. In a band, you’ve rehearsed so you can’t really venture off-piste. I always try to play what people want to hear, as long as I can entertain myself, not just playing the same old stuff. I’m not one of those people who are precious about it, “we’re not going to play anything from that period” or whatever. I’m not Paul Weller, know what I mean? I’m not a snob about playing my own songs. If you pay fifteen quid to see somebody play and they don’t play a couple of songs that you really wanted to hear, you feel kind of short-changed, don’t you?
Have you ever managed to top your infamous gig at The Stables in Milton Keynes?
Ian reads an extract from his Merseybeast autobiography pertaining to aforementioned gig
That was a bit unusual. Usually if the audience has had a few drinks, and I’ve had a few drinks, and it’s in the second set of a long night, things sometimes get a little bit mad but usually it’s okay. The Stables in Milton Keynes though is a little bit stuffy, the kind of place where five minutes before you go on you have someone leading you to the stage. It’s all a bit serious. I thought they were out of order there; everyone had a great time, and it’s been a few years now so I should really get onto them and say, “Look, you’ve got to let me back in now.”
You’ve maintained a hardcore following over the years. Do you ever find yourself talking to someone you don’t know but who knows everything about you, owns all of your records, and if so do you find it at all disconcerting?
What, if they have all my records? I find it disconcerting if they don’t have all my records! No, of course not; if somebody’s into the music and they’ve got all the records, it’s like, “Great, thanks! Tell your mates and family!” I don’t sit at home and listen to my records so sometimes I forget about songs that I’ve done, but they know all about them and I’ll get people saying, “Why have you never played ‘Mountain Comes to Mohammed’?” and I’m like, “What the fuck’s that?” We did it for a Peel session in 1984, a last-minute thing we made up, and I swear to you that I haven’t heard it since we recorded it. I don’t even know what it is, and it’s one of those things where I don’t want to know. I want to keep it a mystery.
Typical question alert: which of your own albums are you most fond of?
It varies sometimes. It seems to be the trendy thing to go out and play an album in its entirety, which means you have to sit down, listen to it, relearn it and take it for what it is. We did that with the first Icicle Works album and we did with the Head Like a Rock album. You get into it and you start going, “Yeah, that’s pretty good.” I’m not a fan of everything I’ve done – you’re not going to be when there are that many songs – but when I’ve done a new album, I go through that thing of thinking it’s the best thing I’ve done, which every artist does because it’s fresh, you’re excited about it and no-one’s heard it.
Time is the judge though; I don’t think you get a good handle on it until you stick it on five years later having kind of forgotten about it, and it either does it for you or it doesn’t. Most creative types tend to just see the faults in their work – “ooh, that could have been better” – and when it’s fine, you just think it’s fine, not great, “Yeah, that’s okay”. I think all my albums have got decent songs on but I’m probably not the right person to ask. If I had to be marooned on an island with one of my albums, it would probably have to be the Best Of! (Laughs)
Which Best Of?
The Best Of Ian McNabb, because I think that’s a better album than the Icicle Works one, purely from the point of view that ‘80s music is mired in production values which make it sound a bit dated.
I was going to ask about producers because you’ve worked with some great ones: the likes of Ian Broudie, John Leckie…
Yeah, I’ve been very fortunate with that. Bruce Lampcov was great, Hugh Jones was great, John Porter who I did the Crazy Horse album with, he was great. We won’t talk about the ones that weren’t!
The Icicle Works – “Love is a Wonderful Colour”
You worked with Ian Broudie on a couple of the Lightning Seeds albums. Is that you singing “the taste of love” backing vocal on “Sense”? It sounds like you.
That’s me and Terry Hall. And on “Lucky You” I did the (sings the “ooh ooh ooooooooh” bit in the lead up to the chorus). I did quite a bit on the Sense and Jollification albums.
You co-wrote “Happy” on Sense…?
That’s right, yeah, although I don’t think I’m singing on that. Christ, it was so long ago. Put it this way, I haven’t had any big cheques for any of that! (Laughs) I think Ian Broudie gave me a few hundred quid and a pizza. But he’s a mate so it doesn’t matter, and I got a little bit of money off the publishing, so… He’s a mate so you don’t really tend to think like that, although I must admit that when the album was in the chart for sixty-four weeks, I was scratching my arse wondering when the money was coming. But don’t say anything to him!
Little Episodes, the new album by Ian McNabb, is now available for pre-order on his official website. He will also be touring the UK across February – click here for a list of live dates.