Ian McNabb talks exclusively to Shadow of a Dream about his forthcoming album ‘Star Smile Strong’ and life as a truly independent artist.
Sometime soon, avid customers will be taking delivery of a highly anticipated new album. Its arrival will be made even more special by the fact that it is despatched straight from the artist himself.
Ian McNabb is a songwriter of the highest class. A man who has always excelled at the ‘Holy Trinity’ of his craft; lyrics, melody and arrangement and who spices his work with signature and formidable guitar work and one of the best voices around. These may seem obvious, even old fashioned virtues, but the reality is that their rarity in the modern music business makes him an artist to truly cherish.
This is an artist who has always been fiercely independent; a man who “goes his own way” and has done since the time of The Icicle Works. Always apart from their contemporaries musically, their sound was like nothing else around at the time and consequently hasn’t dated. However, the originality of their sound never detracted from the crucial principle that McNabb has always lived by, namely that the song is king. Whatever style the sound is delivered in, and whoever he collaborates with, the melody and arrangement skills will always shine through.
A productive solo career has seen a wide range of albums, including a collaboration with Crazy Horse on ‘Head Like A Rock’, an acoustic epistle, ‘A Party Political Broadcast On Behalf Of The Emotional Party’ and 2013’s Eclectic Warrior with Cold Shoulder that came screaming through the speakers in the style of the true rocker that Ian McNabb remains. However, all expectations now turn towards ‘Star Smile Strong’ and I’m delighted that Ian agreed to give me a very rare interview to preview what we can expect.
The title of the album, ‘Star Smile Strong’ is from a Woody Allen film isn’t it?
Yes, all the band and I are big fans of the film. It’s basically about this down and out agent in New York and all his artists have seen better days. Before they go on stage, he makes them chant this mantra which he calls “the three s’s – star smile strong”. We do the same just before we go on and it just gets us laughing and fired up. It’s a positive thing and it’s funny so it was sort of a natural choice for the album title. I’ve been playing with these guys for around ten years and this is the first album we’ve done together so it really seems to fit.
You’ve described this album as possibly your masterpiece. That’s quite a statement, tell us why.
That’s me being a bit tongue in cheek as I don’t think any artist knows when they’ve done their best work. You always think the latest thing you’ve done is pretty good. People who like my solo stuff tend to think Head Like A Rock is probably my best album in terms of quality and production and this the best set of songs probably since that or Merseybeast. This is the album you could place alongside those two in terms of its scope and in some ways it feels like the third instalment of a trilogy – Head Like a Rock, Merseybeast and now this. I love all my albums but I just feel this one has a bit more to it though I’m not sure exactly what it is. Possibly it’s that the same band is on it right through instead of guest musicians. I did the same for Eclectic Warrior with Cold Shoulder.
I’ve spent a lot more time, not necessarily on song-writing, but definitely on recording and arrangements and a lot of things have happened on this album that haven’t really since Head Like a Rock and Merseybeast. I’ve got Professor Brian Cox on it and Chris Sharrock which is a big deal as we haven’t recorded together for a long time so it feels like I’ve come full circle.
How did Brian Cox come to be on the album?
The first track on the album is called Mystic Age which sort of doffs its cap to Pink Floyd’s Us and Them, very different but with a similar feel. It has these voices fading in and out and as we were doing the song I started talking in the gaps with a Brian Cox voice and people liked it so we got some clips of him talking about the universe as the song is about space. I managed to get hold of him to ask for permission to use it and he got straight back and said he loved the track and he’s glad to be part of it. I can’t wait for people to hear that track as I’ve never done anything like it before.
I’ve heard Hotter Than The Sun and How She Moves, although not the finished versions. My first thought on hearing the range of style of those two tracks was “Merseybeast” due to the totally different style of the two tracks and the range of music on that album.
I think that’s one of the things that sets me apart from other artists who may well be all over the place stylistically, but tend to stick to one style on an album then a different style on another. I’ve always mixed it up ever since the Icicle Works where something like Shit Creek would crash into High Time.
I’m heavily influenced by my love of the latter Beatles albums. ‘The White Album’ for instance is stylistically all over the place with Helter Skelter running into Long Long Long and it’s all about a range of styles and interesting sequencing. If you’ve heard Hotter Than The Sun then there isn’t a heavier track on the album and there isn’t a gentler track than How She Moves so you’ve got a good idea of the range there.
I think some people are expecting the album to be really heavy because this band is very powerful live but this is all about the songs with lots of subtlety on it. I’ve done rocking out. Krugerrands and Eclectic Warrior were both balls out rock albums so I wanted something different this time.
Can you run us through some more of the tracks on there?
Mystic Age is about eight minutes long, very floaty with massively powerful chords and saxophone on it, which is unusual for me.
There’s not really a lot of guitar solos on the album; I think there’s only one really. Waiting For A Streetcar has a kind of Steely Dan feel to it, very simple with some nice trumpet on it; almost reminiscent of 1960’s Burt Bacharach.
Enabler has come out sounding very ‘twelve stringy’, almost mid-period REM while I Kind of Like It Without You has a full string arrangement. It’s about this guy who is claiming he is ok after a relationship break-up but you can tell he’s really on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Women Love A Bastard, Men Love a Bitch has got a ‘country rock’ feel, sort of early Eagles while Lazy Water reminds me of some early McCartney solo stuff but it’s difficult to describe them accurately.
The last track is called Clarabella (Come to the Window) which is about twelve minutes long. It’s like a rambling ‘Dylan-type’ thing with lots of verses and choruses; a narrative- type song. It’s an album-closer in the style of Presence of the One. You’ll think “Oh here we go, he’s off again, let’s get comfortable”. I like to do one like that occasionally and I haven’t done one for a while.
There’s a track I’d like to mention called This Love I Feel For You that I co-wrote with Ralph Molina from Crazy Horse. He’s writing his debut album at the age of 74 and asked me if I’d write some music for his lyrics. I put music to this one, not intending to record it but it just came out so well and I really liked it. It’s a bit weird but sounds like second or third album Icicle Works. It’s ironic that I write a song with one of Crazy Horse and end up sounding like my own band!
You’ve recorded with a band for three out of your last four albums. Is that a format you prefer?
I don’t mind to be honest. I did a very stripped back covers album last year called Respectfully Yours and I like recording like that but I also like doing it this way. We started this album by laying down the drums and then overlaying everything on top of that which took a long time to do and it can drive you mad. I’m glad I did it as I think you can tell how much time and effort has gone into it.
Basically, I just love making records but I’m going to take a break after this one as I’ve been in the studio two or three days a week since August. You find yourself thinking about it every minute of the day – is the snare drum too loud? What about the bass drum? Can I make this part better? It’s very intense.
Live gigs show that this line-up is certainly a force to reckon with. Was that a motivation in getting the album done?
Yes, it was. We’re friends as much as anything and I just wanted something to show for all the years we’ve known each other. You never know who might slip off the radar or what may happen. I just wanted to have an album with this band in case we don’t stay together or something horrible happens.
Richard Naiff, my keyboard player doesn’t really do much in the music business anymore. He’s got a job he loves but he’ll go out on tour with me for a couple of months and what a talent he is. Roy Corkhill on bass has been with me for years and everyone knows him and what he’s capable of. Drummer Matthew Priest obviously has his main gig with Dodgy but he enjoys playing with me too and it’s just a great thing when we all get together.
You mentioned earlier you have some saxophone on the album. Is that Martin Winning?
I’m very, very touchy about saxophone on my music. I’ve played with a few over the years and unless it’s exactly right it’s just a squawk to me. Roy knew Martin, he’s played with loads of people like John Martyn and Van Morrison and he sounds absolutely amazing on this album.
I’ve also got a young local singer on there called Hev Parson who was recommended to me. I thought “give her a chance”, got her into the studio and she sounds beautiful. Chris Kearney from Cold Shoulder is also on it playing some slide guitar and lap steel which I don’t really do very well, not as well as him anyway. He’s also a great singer.
A lot of people will notice that Chris Sharrock, former Icicle Works drummer is on there. What’s the story here?
Well we keep in touch and he lives just around the corner from the studio where we’ve been recording. We met a couple of times at lunchtime before I went back to the studio and then we met one evening and beers were consumed. I basically threw him over my shoulder and said “you’re coming to put some percussion on the album”. He couldn’t play drums as they were already done but we spent 3 or 4 hours in the studio and it’s just a really nice thing. I think the fans will really like the fact that Chris and I are on a record together again, even if he’s only playing percussion. It’s just important to have him on it.
The phrase ‘Indie’ is bandied around nowadays to describe a certain genre of music. But you really are the definition of the ‘Independent Artist’ aren’t you?
I’m more ‘indie’ than an ‘indie band’. Fans pre-order the album so basically fund it. When the CD’s are finished we put them in jiffy bags and send them out. You can’t buy the album anywhere apart from me. You can’t stream it and it’s not available for download. If you want it, you get it from me and I think that’s pretty rock and roll to be honest! People tell me if I was with a label it would be easier to get it distributed and advertised but to me, the more difficult it is to get something, the more people want it.
Has the fact that you’re not tied to a record company given you more freedom in the music you make and when you make it?
I dance to my own beat. I can’t have anyone telling me what to do. Very early on in the game, I established that this was how it was going to be and I stand or fall by it. If it fails, it’s down to no one else but me. I’ve had people telling me what to do in the past and it hasn’t really worked out. I’m just happy to trundle along. I’ve got no lofty ambitions; all I want to is keep making music, put out maybe an album a year and keep gigging.
Looking back to the Icicle Works, arguably that band were only one big break away from a stratospheric, ‘U2-sty/le’ take off. Is that level of success something you would have wanted and could have lived with?
It would have been great to be a big band but it never happened and I’m fine with that. I’ve never really felt pressure to deliver apart from when we started out we were getting so much money spent on us we worried that if we didn’t do well we’d get dropped. Then you find yourself worried about selling records for other people’s benefit not yours.
With regards to the quality of the music, I feel I compare very well to all those bands who were part of ‘my generation. I’m referring to the bands who came through around the same time as the Icicle Works and who sold loads more records than we did.
I firmly believe that I can still make music as well as I did then whereas I think a lot of artists of my generation, well I just don’t think the music they make now is that good; it’s alright but not as good as when they first started. I don’t think I’m deluding myself but I feel my stuff is probably getting better and that sets me apart from a lot of my peers.
My only criteria for this album is that the people who have already ordered it, and hopefully those who will buy it, will enjoy it and realise I’m as serious about my music now as I’ve ever been and I hope they enjoy it as much as the stuff that originally made them get into me.
Another point about the Icicle Works is that you were something of a ‘genre-busting band’ if that’s the right phrase. Your music never conformed to any style and, because of that, it hasn’t really dated. It still sounds fresh and original today, which you can’t always say about music from that era. How important is that freedom of creative approach to you?
It’s probably one of the things that has held me back from having more success over the years. In the music industry, things need to be marketed and presented in a way that’s easy for people to understand if you’re going to be financially rewarded. My music never could be and I don’t want to be that kind of artist anyway.
I could probably have done better if I’d stuck to being a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar in the style of someone like Richard Hawley or Lloyd Cole but I’d just get bored doing that. Remember that my ultimate artistic hero is Neil Young and he just doesn’t give a fuck! I give a bit of a fuck but he really doesn’t. He’s still going strong because people love that about him and go to see him because they know that whatever else he does, they’re going to get an hour or so of music they really love.
I don’t like being pigeon-holed as an ‘80’s artist. The music press, or what’s left of it, Mojo, Uncut etc, are not interested in me. They just think “oh he’s that guy from the ‘80’s, he had a hit and played with Crazy Horse”. I really don’t care at all. As long as I’ve got enough people coming to my gigs so I can carry on, I’m happy. I stopped worrying about all the other shit years ago. I’m just really happy to be where I am, doing what I do.
To pre-order ‘Star Smile Strong’ please visit Ian McNabb’s website
Ian McNabb is on Facebook and Tweets as @empiresend.
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