Q&A: Iva Davies of Icehouse

The power of ‘search’ has delivered Icehouse and its lead singer, Iva Davies, a slew of young fans to swell its concert audiences. Iva tells What’s Hot New Zealand how hard it is to pick a set list to please everyone, and his favourite thing about popping over the ditch for a visit.

Are you enjoying being back on the road with Icehouse? Indeed. We’re in a rather luxurious position in that we don’t play grinding, demanding schedules now so every time we play it’s a bit of a novelty. I was the one who initiated the discussions about playing in New Zealand. We always have a great time in New Zealand, it’s such a beautiful place. Historically we have had more success per head of population in New Zealand than in Australia. It’s always been an intriguing place for me because of the incredibly eclectic taste in music. I remember we toured with British band XTC and I had a peculiar conversation with Andy Partridge, the lead singer and primary songwriter, and he has absolutely mystified by the charts in New Zealand. He said there were things in the charts that you wouldn’t see in any other country because they are just so particular. He said it’s the only country in the world where XTC had had a No. 1 album, Black Sea. He was absolutely gobsmacked by that. It was extraordinary.

No doubt things are a bit more restrained on tour this time around? We were never a completely mad band, although I must say that at one point on one of our tours there was an all-points broadcast for us for both the North and South Island and we were banned from staying in any hotel in New Zealand until the record company managed to negotiate a way out. We had a great time in New Zealand but we have always had a strong work ethic. From my point of view, the overarching governor of behaviour for me was that I had to make sure I had a voice the next day. It always takes a while to wind down after doing a show, but even going out to a club and talking over loud music is an absolutely sure-fire way to ensure that you are not going to have a voice the next day. And so with that in mind I knew that I had to be far more disciplined than the other members of the band.

Is it a greatest hits concert or a mix of old and new? It’s always tricky to pick a set and that’s because we are blessed by having more hit songs than we have time to perform, which is a great position to be in but inevitably somebody’s going to miss out on something they really wanted to hear. The set list is going to be loaded fairly heavily with things that people would like to hear because they have been highlights. But on the other hand there are surprises in that there are certain songs that work better as live songs than they did as recorded songs. And they may not be songs that had a high profile such as top five hits or whatever but they work particularly well in a live show environment and the band love playing them. So inevitably we have those kinds of choices too – last night I was talking to our bass player, Steve Bull, about a particular song that this lineup has never played before, and this lineup goes back 30 years. The song, ‘Goodnight Mr Matthews’, wasn’t even on an album, it was a fairly obscure B-side. I’m not promising we are going to play this in New Zealand but it is under discussion. I’m always nervous about choices like that because it was never on an album so unless you were an absolutely die-hard Icehouse fan you’ve probably never even heard of this song. On the other hand, in this discussion with Steve, he pointed out to me in making the case for it that times have changed and whereas I have always psychologically had the list of 10 songs that were on the vinyl album as being the album per se, people listening to things on streaming services these days, like my son and my daughter’s generation, blithely get past song No. 10 and then they’re into the bonus tracks and the added B sides and live versions and so on and so forth, so they don’t really distinguish between that shortlist of 10 songs that was originally crafted as an album in the same way that my brain does. Part of me envies that. My son is 23 and I would say if I was to name a period that he is most fond of it would possibly even be the 70s. But part of me does also regrets the loss of the concept of an album that is crafted as an album. There was a particular effort that went in to creating a collection of songs that had a particular order to them, that had a beginning and an end in terms of their running order. In the days of vinyl, that extended to what went on each side. I remember when we were putting together our third album, Sidewalk, I wrote a particularly vicious song as the title track and it was quite critical of the United States presidential system. I remember the playback for the executives of Chrysalis, the record company. It was in Los Angeles and they all filed in to the recording studio control room and I had the president of Chrysalis and the vice president and so on, and my idea was to open the album with this title track, ‘Sidewalk’. And I was reasonably confident that even though they were record company executives they wouldn’t be listening terribly hard to the lyrics. And I was completely wrong because within 30 seconds I could see them go ashen-faced and in absolute gobsmacked shock. Needless to say I was tapped on the shoulder and told you won’t be starting the album with that song, you can start the second side with that song. And that’s where it ended up. There are plenty of stories like that attached to the importance of where things were on an album.

And what about the fans – a mix of old and new? Indeed they are in what I find an incredibly surprising way. I guess it’s best typified by a story from about 2011 – we started playing again in 2010 or so and we hadn’t played for 16 years. There was this festival in Sydney called Homebake and they got 20,000 to 30,000 people in the audience. We were approached by the promoter and he said he would like us to play at Homebake and he would like us to play our first album, Icehouse, and by the way most of the audience are in their 20s. I was in absolute shock and I said to this promoter ‘Are you completely insane? This is going to die a thousand deaths because that album is 35, nearly 40 years old and the audience you’re talking about won’t even have been born when that album was released.’ We went ahead and played and I approached the stage with fear and loathing because I thought it was a formula for disaster. Anyway about three songs in, Steve the bass player tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Look at the front row’. And the front row was full of 18-year-olds singing every single word of the songs. I was absolutely flabbergasted by it because the whole method hadn’t even occurred to me, the power of the internet and the way in which 20-year-olds these days go looking for music.

Do you have any favourite spots in New Zealand that you are looking to visit? My favourite thing about visiting New Zealand is that there are surprises every time, and my expectation is of that being the case again. I remember one time we played outside Queenstown to about 17,000 people and it was overcast and drizzly but we had a fantastic time. Then our last concert on that tour we performed in blazing heat.

Auckland: ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, March 5, 2020
Lincoln: Selwyn Sounds, Lincoln Event Centre, March 7, 2020