Ian McNabb at Bilston in 2003

Boots... Truth and Beauty

Interview: Ian McNabb (part 2)

Published on January 27th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams

Read on for part 2 of Rocksucker‘s interview with Ian McNabb…(click here for part 1)…

Ian McNabb – “You Must Be Prepared to Dream” (from Head Like a Rock)

Do you know the Head brothers from Shack well at all?

I can’t say I know them well, although I probably know John a little bit better than Mick. Mick doesn’t really socialise that much and he’s had a few problems recently, but what a great songwriter and what a great band. Without any disrespect to Mick, I think he’s a little bit self-destructive, which we’ve all been at certain times, but it’s prevented him from doing more. He should be gigging all the time, making records all the time, and when he doesn’t it’s a bit tricky for him. I hope he gets himself together because he’s got a lot of music to give.

I’m 99.9% certain that it’s not the case but, on the off chance that it is, I have to ask: was Head Like a Rock in any way, shape or form a reference to their drug abuse?

Good lord, no! It’s a lyric in one of the verses of the first song. We couldn’t think of a title and the record company came up with that. I didn’t like it at first but we put the dummy head on the cover and it worked, because it was a simple image and a simple title. I don’t even know what it means, actually; it was just in the song.

In a sense, Head Like a Rock losing out to M People for the Mercury Prize makes for quite an effective microcosm of your career!

The Mercury was a bit different in those days; it was only ten albums rather than fourteen or whatever it is now, and I think that was only the second year of it as well so it was a bit of a strange one. I think they’re more aware of being a bit ‘cooler’ now too. But you know, whatever, I was just amazed that I’d even been nominated, and I think probably one of the reasons it did was because it got a lot of press. Also, when I was doing my thing back then, which was around ’93 or ’94, there was a real dearth of English singer-songwriters; there were only a few of us from the old school, whereas now there are bloody millions of them. So that probably contributed to me getting nominated, apart obviously from the fact that it was a good album.

Ian McNabb – “Potency” (from Head Like a Rock)

As a craftsman, are you bothered at all by shows like The X Factor and the proliferation of insipid karaoke that they spew habitually forth?

I just think it’s a different thing. I don’t think that the people who buy those records are potential buyers of my music, so I don’t think I’m missing out because of it. It’s just what it is, isn’t it? Everyone knows it’s a big karaoke competition and that whoever wins it will probably have the Christmas number 1 and at least one album out of it. Then six months later, nobody remembers who they are. It’s fifteen minutes of fame and I don’t think it infringes too much on what people like me do.

The thing that does annoy me in this country is the total lack of live music on television, apart from Later with Jools Holland, which I don’t like because I don’t like him. I like some of the artists on it but I think it’s really smug. When you think of what we used to have, stuff like The Old Grey Whistle Test, and The Tube was great… Even MTV doesn’t play music videos any more, it’s all reality shows.

A recurring observation from musicians I speak to is that the music industry is largely comprised of people who haven’t got a clue about music. Would you go along with this?

I’m in two minds on that; I don’t think that music should be exclusively the property of nerds, people who swat up on it, probably the likes of you and I, and Mathew. I think that even people who don’t know anything about music should get to enjoy music, but the problem is that what they listen to is the stuff that’s rammed down their throats because they don’t investigate any further; they don’t buy music magazines or read about it online, don’t delve into the cracks, basically.

If they hear something on the radio or see something on the telly then that’s what they’ll buy; they’re not going to go out and buy The Flying Burrito Brothers, know what I mean? It’s just what’s put in front of them and a lot of people don’t have time to delve any further because they’ve got jobs and families, a lot of hours in the day that they’re busy. So I can understand it. It’s a little bit frustrating sometimes when you jump in a cab and the taxi driver’s playing Michael Buble’s Christmas album, and you just say, “Excuse me, any chance of turning that down?”

Ian McNabb – “Great Dreams of Heaven” (from Truth and Beauty)

Although you raise another interesting debate, I was referring more to people within the industry. Have you ever been subjected to record labels or management trying to interfere with the creative process?

Oh god yeah, I’ve been in plenty of arguments over that. I just throw my toys out the pram and storm out! “I’d rather sign on than put this album out with the tracklisting wrong”: stuff like that. I don’t really have to do that anymore because I’ve got total control now, but yeah people always try to interfere. Especially major labels; they’d come in to hear the album, the mixes you’d done, and they’d sit there at the back and feel like they had to say something or they weren’t a part of it, so they’d make a suggestion and you’d go, “Oh yeah, that’s great.” Then you’d fiddle around with a few fades, play it back and they’d go, “That’s much better,” even though you hadn’t changed anything.

What’s Zak Starkey up to these days?

He’s got a band with his girlfriend called Penguins. They’re kind of like an electronic rock/punky new wave kind of thing, and I know he’s been spending a lot of time on it. They supported Kasabian – he’s mates with them – and I think that The Who are supposed to be doing something at some point if Pete Townshend sorts his ears out. As far as I know Zak’s still in The Who but he’s been concentrating on Penguins because he hasn’t had an original band for a long time. But I haven’t heard from him for a while so I’m not really too sure.

You must get asked a lot about your experiences of playing bass for Ringo, or “Richie” as you got to call him…

Yeah, that was a good one. That was just a bit of a last-minute thing, and I played bass because they already had two guitarists. We only did two gigs: the Red Cross Ball in Monaco and a charity thing round Guildford Way where all the rock stars live. We only did 20/25-minute sets but it was a lot of fun playing Beatles songs with a Beatle, you know? That’s something to tell your grandkids if you ever have any, isn’t it? It was fabulous, he was dead cool, dropped the keys of everything about three steps even when they weren’t high to begin with!

The Icicle Works – “Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)” (from The Icicle Works)

He comes across as being quite curmudgeonly these days, although I imagine he’d be different in private.

You do get like that at that age though, don’t you? I’m a curmudgeon and I’m only 50. You just grump about everything because it’s easy. But on the occasions that I’ve met him – and I’ve probably met him half a dozen times – he’s always been loads of fun. He laughs a lot, cracks a lot of gags; he kind of reminds me of an old-school master of ceremonies from a pub on Dock Road or something. I think that’s probably where he would have ended up if he hadn’t been in The Beatles! But yeah, he’s always been very gracious to me, so I like him.

Have you ever heard any really good cover versions of one of your songs? Or indeed any bad ones?

I’ve heard quite a few covers. The funniest one was Rhydian doing “Love is a Wonderful Colour”, and a band called SoHo did a cover of “Whisper to a Scream” for Wes Craven’s first Scream movie that was kind of alright. I think my favourite is The Wildhearts’ version of “Understanding Jane”, which was really good, but there’s no such thing as a bad cover for me. If someone wants to cover one of my songs and I get a bit of wages from it, then bring it on. The more the merrier!

Are there any obscure and/or up-and-coming artists that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?

A couple of things I’ve really gotten into recently: this guy called Jonathan Wilson who’s like a Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles singer-songwriter type dude, very much in the ‘70s tradition, and another guy called Tyler Ramsey who does the same kind of thing. I tend to like really good singer-songwriters. I really like The Black Keys as well – they’re one of the new bands that have registered with me – but there’s not a lot blowing me away. I was concerned because I thought I was getting old and wasn’t as tuned-in as I was before, but I do always try and listen to new stuff.

I have 6Music on so I can hear what’s going on, and with some things you think, “Yeah, that’s pretty good,” but I don’t think it’s a great period for new music. I still tend to find myself listening to old stuff; not old stuff that I’ve loved for years but old stuff that I hadn’t discovered. There’s so much music been made. I go on Spotify a lot and check out the “Related Artists” that I haven’t heard before: that’s generally how I tend to find new music.

The Icicle Works – “Understanding Jane” (from If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song)

Finally, if you were forced to spend the rest of your days in solitary confinement, but you were allowed to take with you the entire works of five different artists to tide you over, whose would you select?

Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Randy Newman and Kraftwerk. But as soon as I put the phone down I’ll think of five more.

Interesting that you say Kraftwerk as presumably the majority of your songs were written on guitar. Have you ever thought about ‘going electronic’, as it were?

I’ve written quite a lot of songs on the piano, although I’m not really a piano player. I can play the piano to the extent that I can get my message across. I quite like writing on the piano because I find it a little bit disorientating and you accidentally hit chords that you didn’t mean to, whereas on the guitar I know where I’m going all the time. I’ve written quite a lot of songs just banging away on a bongo drum, you know, just trying to make it a bit different, not knowing what key I’m in, working out the chords later.

The trouble with writing on an instrument that you know so well is that you’ve made so many different chord changes and sequences already. When I wrote these songs, I was amazed that I managed to write ten or eleven pretty good songs because I’ve written so many before. You try to find different things to say, not write about the same things, but it does get harder not to repeat yourself. I’m just made up if I can write A song, and if it’s a good one then it’s a real thrill.

When I wrote the first Icicle Works album, it took me so long to come up with ten really good songs and I thought, “Fucking hell, I’ll never be able to do that again.” Yet here we are thirty years later and I’m still doing it. Thank god the music’s still in touch with me!

Have you ever written a song that you soon realised bore an uncanny resemblance to one of your previous songs?

Yeah, there’s been a couple, but if you change things slightly then it makes it more difficult to recognise. I’m quite pleased with the fact that I don’t really think I’ve repeated myself. What’s the point? I think a lot of artists do; you know, I love Tom Waits but I think I might just have enough of his records now. Every time I stick a new one on, it pretty much sounds like the last one. I always buy his records, play them once and then put them in alphabetical order. He’s pretty much written all the songs that I need to hear, going on about deformed people and railroads. (Laughs) He’s definitely repeated himself, but he’s great though. I just wish I could afford to go and see him sometimes; he’s priced himself out of my market!

Ian McNabb, thank you.

Ian McNabb - Little Episodes

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.

Documentary detailing Ian’s excursions to play acoustic sets at the homes of fans. “Have you seen the film Misery?”…

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About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.