Saturday, October 6, 2012

Iva Davies (Icehouse) interview: 2012


For Iva Davies, the clichéd mullet and leather jacketed Aus-rocker image was never a good fit for him, even in the 1980s. In fact the Sydney native multi-instrumentalist, while writing future classic singles for his band Flowers (and ultimately Icehouse), was in the late ‘70s, moonlighting as a bow-tied oboist in a symphony orchestra, in order to give himself options. “I was living a real double life back then!” Thankfully, the rock path held greater appeal, and in the coming years, Iva would find himself front and centre of one of the most successful bands in the country, before inexplicably disappearing without a word in the mid-‘90s.

Equally unexpected was the break in Icehouse’s 17 years of inactivity, when in July last year, an unannounced ‘secret’ gig at the Espy was swamped by hundreds of fans who’d turned up in the hope the rumours were in fact true. The huge response soon prompted further dates being booked, and ultimately lead to a tour in celebration of the respective anniversaries of the band’s two biggest albums; Primitive Man and Man Of Colours. Before the so-named Primitive Colours tour hits town, Iva looks back at the songs that made him a household name and tells why he decided make such an understated return.

“Part of the reason we did that show was basically to see if there was still interest in the band. Before that show, I really wasn’t confident at all but when the word got out that the surprise guests were us there were lines around the block, which was a huge relief.” Davies recalls. “It was also quite appealing playing a proper pub gig again. It was a bit of a return to our roots as well.” After Icehouse called it quits in 1995, Davies, holed up in his home studio, threw himself into writing scores for films (Master & Commander), the Sydney Dance Company and a Millennium performance piece called The Ghost of Time, which centred around an updated version of the Icehouse classic, Great Southern Land. For all intents and purpose though, it seemed as if Iva had suddenly turned his back on Icehouse and pop music in general.

“Playing in a band is actually a very gruelling lifestyle.” He reasons, “I’ve always needed to offset all that by grabbing as much quiet time as I can in order to work, which means pulling the phone out of the wall just so I can avoid any distractions. That’s how I’ve always made music; whether that’s pop or film scores.” He adds, “I look at someone like Prince, who I know for a fact had a studio on 24 hour stand-by while he was in Sydney a few months ago, just in case he had an idea for a song but for me, I’ve never been able to stop and start the process at will. It’s a bit of fragile bubble that once broken can never be regained.” His method of music making no matter how isolating resulted in a tonne of credible hits throughout the 1980s. Radio in particular loved Icehouse so much that based on playlists alone, one would have assumed they were the most popular band in the country for a time. Davies’ memory of such support however, is a little less than enthusiastic.
Davies: Not just the 'Electric Blue guy.'

“I never wanted to be known as the ‘Electric Blue guy’.” He laughs, distancing himself somewhat from the 1987 single, which was famously a co-write with John Oates (of Hall & Oates). “That song was actually our only number one hit in Australia, but it wasn’t what I thought best represented Icehouse as I saw us. Still it is the song that I get asked about more than any other even to this day.” Electric Blue was in truth far from the band's only moment in the sun. Second album 1984’s Primitive Man, was Icehouse’s first real mover on the local and overseas charts, however label doubt over the finished product’s hit-potential pushed Iva into an unexpectedly rewarding situation. “The American record label, who wanted to push the Primitive Man album, sent us back to the drawing board because they didn’t think we had a big single on there.” He explains, “Basically I ended up sleeping on the floor in Giorgio Moroder’s studio – who was of course this massive disco producer in Hollywood, where we had recorded most of the album – and in the wee hours, using this guitar with a missing string, I wrote Hey Little Girl, which became our first international hit.” The mention of Moroder prompts Davies’ to quickly remind me his allegiance was always to the rock world and that Icehouse were never in real danger of making a disco record.

“Back then, you were very much into one or the other, and I was never a disco fan at all.” He confirms, “Led Zeppelin and T-Rex was what I really was into at the time, although I did like what Moroder was doing with synths and sequencers.” As it happened, it was during the same year Moroder was enjoying success with the uber-cheesey Together In Electric Dreams, that Icehouse delivered what would become their signature single and sure-fire Aus anthem; the haunting Great Southern Land. “That song went through quite a number of changes before it was completed.” Iva recalls, “I remember the producer on that track had just done Billy Idol’s Hot In The City, which was a massive record at the time, and he replaced all of my synth parts with live drums and so on, and basically made it into this big Billy Idol-type production piece, but it was just awful.” He laughs, “But the finished version you know today was basically the untouched demo that had taken me around two hours to mix and complete and it ended up becoming this massive thing that has become our real defining moment. But I really was disconnected with what it was people seemed to love about that song at the time. All I knew was I’d written a song about Australia and if I got it wrong then there was a real potential of it blowing up in my face!”

The simplistic beauty of how Southern Land was ultimately completed indicates a high level of self-belief in Iva’s way of working. While he generally allowed producers and labels their input, trust in his own judgement delivered the best results. Furthermore, while sales and accolades have informed which Icehouse albums are the most loved, In Iva’s own view, 1986 album Measure For Measure was closer to Icehouse’s defining moment. “I’m not necessarily consistent about it, but if pushed I would say that album was the most pivotal for us.” He considers, “It turned out that that album was only the third fully digital recording made ever, but we didn’t know that at the time.” Davies recalls, “How it happened was, a few years before we made it, we met a guy in London called Rhett Davies, who was a penniless roady at the time, but in the space of a few short years he had amassed this warehouse full of amazing gadgets, including a brand new digital multi-track.” Iva continues.

Big Wheel and its floppy attachment.
“As with anything new, there were more happy accidents when recording in digital than there were plans. Having said that, Rhett wasn’t in any way flying blind. This is a guy who had produced all early Roxy Music and Brian Eno albums, and so we were very lucky to be in his company at the start of the whole digital music thing.” After embracing digital recording and the CD in the mid-‘80s, Icehouse were again at the forefront of a burgeoning technology in 1993. The band’s seventh album, Big Wheel was initially packaged with a floppy disc – only the second album in the world to do so – although it would prove to be a much more short-lived diversion, Iva recalls the “bonus floppy” with fondness. “It was actually developed by our keyboardist Tony Llewellyn, who was a real techno-boffin and one of the first people who bought a Macintosh and carried it around in a bag on tour. Once again, I was lucky to be around incredibly clever people, but it was always going to be a risk seeing as technology can be so transient, but it was something nobody else was doing and even though it took a while to fire it up once the disc was inserted, it was a fun little extra to play around with.”

Iva with Flowers; circa 1980
As our interview begins to wind up, the future of Icehouse is only discussed briefly as Iva had revealed earlier in our talk, “I can’t even think about recording or writing when I am preparing for a tour. They exist in two completely different sides of my brain!” He has however been sporadically recording music up until recently for an unfinished project known as Bi-Polar Poems, hinting at a possible further Icehouse album. In the meantime though, Davies is ticking off towns and venues around Australia in one of the band’s most extensive local tours of their career. “Most of the places we are playing this time around will be new to us. I mean take the Espy gig for instance, we had never played that venue before even back in the Flowers days. There was however a whole strip of music venues down that way (St Kilda Esplanade) at the time, one notably called Bananas, which was just tiny and I remember having to walk up about four flights of stairs, carrying all our gear to get to it.” Iva laughs, “We played there a number of times, but by the time the Espy was up and running as a live venue, we had already had a bit of success and were actually able to play bigger venues like Festival Hall.”


The 'Primitive Colours' tour promo slide.

Iva at the 'surprise' Espy gig, July 2011